Paulinus of Pella was a fifth-century Gallo-Roman aristocrat. He is known to us purely because in his old age, having suffered much and living in penury, he wrote a long verse story of his life. It is usually called Eucharisticos (‘Thanksgiving’). Here I’d like to tell something of Paulinus’s life and times.

‘I know that among famous men there have been some who, in right of their brilliant qualities and to immortalise the eminence of their renown, have handed down to posterity a memoir of their doing compiled in their own words. Since I am of course as far removed from these in their outstanding worth as in point of time, it is certainly no similar reason and design which has induced me to put together a little work almost identical in subject…’ (Paulinus of Pella)

Early life

The ruins of Pella

The ruins of Pella

Paulinus was born in the year 377 in Pella in Macedonia, the town which was, as he says, ‘the nursery of King Alexander, near Salonika’s Wall’. His father was the deputy to the provincial Roman prefect. When Paulinus was just nine months old his father took the family with him to Carthage in North Africa, where he was to take up a new appointment as proconsul. They travelled ‘across snowy ridges and torrent-riven ranges, across the main and the waves of the Tyrrhenian flood.’ Eighteen months later the family was on the move again, this time ‘to behold the famed bulwarks of all-glorious Rome on the world’s heights’.

All this Paulinus was later told, as he had been too young to remember anything of it. Another move followed, this time to his grandfather’s house in Bordeaux in Aquitaine, in south-western Gaul. Bordeaux was, he says, ‘the land of my forefathers’. Paulinus’s grandfather was the rich poet Ausonius who had been made a consul in Bordeaux in the same year his son’s family arrived back home.

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

We can already see that Paulinus was the scion of a rich, powerful and educated provincial Gallo-Roman family. His was a privileged childhood. His parents were keen to educate their son. They mingled learning with enticements, and tried to instill in him ‘the means of good living’, and alongside learning to read and write to ‘shun the ten special marks of ignorance and equally to avoid vices’.

At first Latin was an ‘unknown tongue’ to Paulinus because he had grown up talking with his ‘Greek servants’. So in addition to reading Socrates and Homer he mastered the Latin works of Maro as well.

The years passed under ‘the constant care of Greek and Latin tutors’, but then fate took a hand. Young Paulinus became very ill with a fever, possibly because of his unhealthy studious life. His parents realized, he says, that his recovery was more urgent than ‘the training of my tongue in eloquence’. The doctors advised a regime of gaiety and amusement. In earlier days his father had enjoyed hunting but had recently stopped, so in order to help his son get better he started to hunt again and took Paulinus with him.

These pursuits, long continued during the slow period of my sickness, caused in me a distaste for study, thenceforward chronic, which persisting afterwards in time of health, harmed me when love of the false world made way and the too pliant fondness of my parents gave way, charmed with delight at my recovery.

Hunting and whoring

As he started to grow Paulinus ‘waywardness increased’ and he started to pursue his ‘youthful desires’:

Wherefore, as my growth, so my waywardness increased, readily settling down to the pursuit of youthful desires — as to have a fine horse bedecked with special trappings, a tall groom, a swift hound, a shapely hawk, a tinselled ball, fresh brought from Rome, to serve me in my games of pitching, to wear the height of fashion, and to have each latest novelty perfumed with sweet-smelling myrrh of Araby. Likewise when I recall how, grown robust, I ever loved to gallop riding a racing steed, and how many a headlong fall I escaped, ’tis right I should believe I was preserved by Christ’s mercy; and pity ’tis that then I knew it not by reason of the world’s thronging enticements.

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

Of course during all these years of study and hunting, Paulinus, living with his rich parents and grandparents, would have been surrounded by countless servants and slaves, including his ‘tall groom’ to keep his ‘fine horse bedecked with special trappings’.

His parents were mostly concerned, Paulinus says, with the ‘renewal of their line through me’. But as he reached adolescence Paulinus felt ‘new fires and… broke out into the pleasures of harmful wantonness’. In other words he discovered women and sexual desire. To try to check his wilful wantonness he made a rule for himself:

That I should never seek an unwilling victim, nor transgress another’s rights, and, heedful to keep unstained my cherished reputation, should beware of yielding to free-born loves though voluntarily offered, but be satisfied with servile amours in my own home; for I preferred to be guilty of a fault rather than of an offence, fearing to suffer loss of my good name.

If I may be permitted to put this in modern parlance, this means that Paulinus swore that he wouldn’t rape women against their will, nor have sex with other men’s wives. Not only that but he would not have sex with ‘free-born’ women even if it were ‘voluntarily offered’. Rather, he would limit himself to having sex with women slaves in his ‘own house’. Whether they had much say in the matter can be doubted.

Despite all these good intentions however Paulinus had, he admits, ‘one son I know (who) was born to me at that time’. He never saw this son, who soon died, and, he says,  he never met ‘any bastards of mine afterwards’. How many did he have with the household slaves?

Marriage, leisure and luxury

Paulinus's grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

Paulinus’s grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

And so this was how the privileged Paulinus’s life went on from his eighteenth year until he was thirty; hunting and whoring we might call it. But much against his will his parents pushed him to ‘mate with a wife’, which he did. It seems his wife came from a prestigious Gallo-Roman family but that much of the family’s land had been neglected and gone to seed due to the ‘lethargy’ of her grandfather. Reluctantly Paulinus and his ‘thralls’, his slaves, went to work to improve his wife’s estate; ‘inciting such as I could by the example of my own labour, he said, ‘but compelling some against their will with a master’s sternness’.  He and his slaves brought land back under tillage and renewed the vines; he even paid his taxes, a thing he was quite proud of as an old man. But the good intentions and work didn’t last too long. Paulinus was too much an aristocrat and too intent on leisure and luxury, things that were ‘much prized by me’, he says. He became:

Only concerned that my house should be equipped with spacious apartments and at all times suited to meet the varying seasons of the year, my table lavish and attractive, my servants many and those young, the furniture abundant and agreeable for various purposes, plate more preeminent in price than poundage, workmen of divers crafts trained promptly to fulfil my behests, my stables filled with well-conditioned beasts and, withal, stately carriages to convey me safe abroad. And yet I was not so much bent on increasing these same things as zealous in preserving them, neither too eager to increase my wealth nor a seeker for distinctions, but rather — I admit — a follower of luxury, though only when it could be attained at trifling cost and outlay and without loss of fair repute that the brand of prodigality should not disgrace a blameless pursuit.

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

This is how Paulinus’s life would most likely have gone on, living from the work of the slaves on his wife’s estate in Bordeaux and later inheriting the large properties of his parents and grandfather, not only around Bordeaux but also elsewhere in Aquitaine, in Provence and even back in Greece, his place of birth. More lands, more slaves, more hunting, more feasts with guests and no doubt children to carry on the family line. It was a life that countless members of the provincial Roman elite enjoyed in their villas throughout Gaul, in Spain, in Britain and right across the Roman world. A good life to be sure, but one based entirely on the work of slaves.

Yet this was not to be because Paulinus had the misfortune to be born around 377 and while he was still enjoying his hunting and whoring in 406, the year before his marriage, tens of thousands of Vandals, Sueves and Alans had crossed the Rhine, brushed aside the Empire’s Frankish allies, and started blazing a trail of destruction through Gaul. This famous crossing of the Rhine took place near Mainz on the 31st December 405 (not 406 as used to be commonly believed) has been seen by many of Europe’s greatest historians as a pivotal date in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet the Vandals and Sueves, as well as many of the Alans, soon moved on, crossing into Spain in 409, from where the Vandals went on to north Africa, capturing and devastating the Roman province of Carthage, part of Rome’s ‘bread basket’. Although Paulinus would soon have some dealings with the Alans, what was more decisive for him and for Aquitaine was the arrival of another Germanic tribe, the Goths, who first arrived at the walls of Bordeaux in 414 when Paulinus was about thirty-seven.

Roman slaves

Roman slaves

Before I tell of this I’d like to say a few words about slavery in Roman Gaul at this time. That the Roman Empire had been supported by slave labour is well known and documented. Some historians have suggested that in the late Roman period in which Paulinus lived it was much less prevalent. All the evidence suggests that this was not so. Not only did the Gallo-Roman villa owners in the early fifth century have domestic or household slaves, but as historian R. Samson has shown convincingly the terms, ancillae, servi and mancipia that are used constantly in the sources (and indeed by Paulinus), referring to those who ‘performed every imaginable task, as bakers, millers, physicians, cooks, spinners, swineherds, or porters…. and above all…. agricultural workers’, were indeed slaves. When you read Paulinus’s own story this is, I suggest, blindly clear, as we have already seen and will see again.

Here is how Paulinus tells of how his life changed:

Of this life would that the enjoyment granted by Christ’s rich bounty had continued longer for us, the former times of peace enduring likewise! In many ways could my youth have profited by frequent application of my father’s spoken counsel and by the growth in my training won from his good example! But after the third decade of my life was passed, there followed hopeless sorrow caused by a double burden — a general grief at public calamity, when foes burst into the vitals of the Roman realm, together with personal misfortune in the end and death of my father; for the last days which closed his life were almost continuous with the days when peace was broken.

Paulinus tells us that on his father’s death his ‘wilful’ brother tried to annul his father’s legal will regarding certain ‘benefits’ granted to their mother, but he doesn’t tell us of the arrival of the Goths in Bordeaux.

The Battle of Adrianople

The Battle of Adrianople

The Goths had first entered the Roman Empire in 378 after they had defeated the Roman emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople, in present-day Bulgaria. The subsequent years saw them loyally serving the Empire in the Balkans before in 410, under their king, Alaric, they sacked Rome for reasons I will not go into here. Eventually in 412 the Emperor Honorius induced the Goths, under Alaric’s successor, his brother-in-law Athaulf, to leave Rome by granting them Roman federate status in Aquitaine in southwest Gaul. Part of the deal was that they were also expected to fight the short-lived imperial pretender Jovinus and his brother Sebastian, which they soon did and sent their heads to Honorius’ court in Ravenna. The heads were forwarded for display among other usurpers on the walls of Carthage. Partly because of this service Honorius allowed Athaulf to marry his sister Galla Placidia in Narbonne in Gaul with much pomp and ceremony on the first day of 414.

It was Narbonne from which Athaulf’s Goths then progressed along the River Garonne from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Toulouse would later become the capital of the Goths’ Gaulish kingdom, before early the next century they moved to Spain and became the ‘Visigoths’ of history.

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

At this time there were few if any effective Roman legionary forces left in Aquitaine, this was precisely the reason why the Emperor had had to have recourse to the Goths to rid him of his rivals in Gaul. And so as the Goths marched up the Garonne there was no resistance from the Gallo-Roman civil authorities who were still in place. When they got to Bordeaux the city opened its gates to them without a fight.

The Romans had started to adopt of policy of so-called hospitalitas to accommodate the various Germanic and other tribes who had come to Gaul. This involved the Gallo-Roman owners of large estates and villas were told that they must give part of their land and property to the ‘barbarians’. Usually this meant two thirds of their land and one half of their other property, but sometimes they might agree to pay the invaders the equivalent proportion of their income. This is what happened in Paulinus’s Bordeaux region.

The Goths arrive in Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

When the Goths came to Bordeaux or possibly before they arrived Paulinus had considered leaving and going, he says, to ‘a second country in the East — where indeed I was born and was also held to be an owner of great consequence’. No doubt somewhere in Macedonia or Greece. But he didn’t leave, firstly because, he tells us, of ‘the mere sluggish effort of my train’. But also, and this would become a recurring issue, because of ‘the conflicting wishes of my dear ones’:

Too often by the struggle of their resolves with my own wishes whenever their returning dread of an uncertain issue delayed by some perverse chance preparations already begun.

But he also admitted that he hadn’t fled because his nature ‘was enticed by my habits of ease, my wonted repose, the many special comforts of my home’. He liked his life of ease.

But for some unknown reason Paulinus avoided having a Gothic ‘guest’ imposed on him. That is he avoided having to give up two-thirds of his land to the Goths. He wrote that despite having ‘all great and pleasant luxuries and every blessing in those rough days’, he alone ‘lacked a Gothic guest’.

There was a downside to this. He wrote:

This circumstance was followed not long afterwards by a disastrous result, namely that, since no particular authority protected it, my house was given up to be pillaged by the retiring horde; for I know that certain of the Goths most generously strove to serve their hosts by protecting them.

Probably to try to legitimise the Gothic occupation of Narbonne, in the spring of 414 Athaulf had proclaimed Priscus Attalus, a Greek-born former Roman Senator ‘Emperor’. A sort of puppet imperial court was formed in Bordeaux.

But on me, besides my lot in the condition just described, a fresh cause of greater trouble was also imposed; namely that in his general groping after empty consolations, the tyrant Attalus burdened me in my absence with an empty title of distinction, making me Count of Private Largesses (procurator), although he knew that this office was sustained by no revenue, and even himself had now ceased to believe in his own royalty, dependent as he was upon the Goths alone of whom already he had had bitter experience, finding with them protection at the moment of his life but not of his authority, while of himself he was supported neither by resources of his own nor by any soldiery.

Gothic King of Toulouse

Gothic king of Toulouse

Of course Attalus didn’t last long and we’ll leave him here. Paulinus tells us that not in any way because of Attalus, ‘that tottering tyrant’, he tried to make peace with the Goths. He was trying to save his property and the lifestyle he and his family, particularly his wife, loved. It was a peace, he says, that was ‘desired by the general consent of the Goths themselves’. What Paulinus had probably done was offer the Goths hospitalitas, i.e. maybe two-thirds of his land and property. He tells us that this had been ‘granted to others’, and ‘though purchased at a price, remains unregretted, since already in our state we see full many prospering through Gothic favour, though many first endured the full range of suffering’, including, he says, ‘not least of whom was I, seeing that I was stripped of all my goods and outlived my fatherland’.

Paulinus’s entreaties to the Goths obviously didn’t have the desired result because, he says, when they were ‘about to depart from our city at the command of their king Athaulf, the Goths, though they had been received peaceably, imposed the harshest treatment on us, as though subdued by right of war, by burning the whole city’.

There finding me — then a Count of that Prince (i.e. Attalus), whose allies they did not recognise as their own — they stripped me of all my goods, and next my mother also, both of us overtaken by the same lot, for this one grace considering that they were showing us, their prisoners, mercy — that they suffered us to depart without injury; howbeit, of all the companions and handmaidens who had followed our fortunes none suffered any wrong at all done to her honour, nor was any assault offered, yet I was spared more serious anxiety by the divine goodness, to whom I owe constant thanks, because my daughter, previously wedded by me to a husband, was spared the general calamity by her absence for our country.

If we read this passage closely we can see that Paulinus saying that although he had lost all his property in and around Bordeaux, mercifully none of his kinswomen, and particularly his daughter, had been raped. But also implied is the fact that many other women had been.

Flight from Bordeaux

Now even Paulinus’s wife probably had to agree that they leave Bordeaux. Paulinus himself says that his family had been, ‘driven from our ancestral and our house burned’. They fled to the neighbouring Aquitaine city of Bazas, his forefathers’ native place.



In Bazas Paulinus discovered something he called ‘far more dangerous than the beleaguering foe’. It was a ‘conspiracy of slaves supported by the senseless frenzy of some few youths, abandoned though of free estate, and armed specially for the slaughter of the gentry.’ The withdrawal of the Roman legions and the ‘barbarian’ invasions had certainly given the countless Gallic Roman slaves an opportunity to try to throw of the Roman yoke, sometimes led, as Paulinus says, by free-born Gallo-Romans. At this time, and for some time to come, the majority of the people of Gaul still spoke a Celtic Gallic language, even members of the elite provincial aristocracy, as Sidonius Apollinaris tells us. It’s instructive that Paulinus regarded this threat of the slaves as ‘far more dangerous’ than the ‘barbarian’ Goths. The Gallo-Roman elite might have to make an accommodation with the new Germanic rulers but any threat to their privileges from below, from the bulk of the native population, freemen or slaves, was so much more worrying. Paulinus writes with feeling:

From this danger thou, O righteous God, didst shield the innocent blood, quelling it forthwith by the death of some few guilty ones, and didst ordain that the special assassin threatening me should without my knowledge perish by another’s avenging hand, even as thou hast been wont to bind me to thee with fresh gifts for which I might feel I owed thee endless thanks.

How God put down this local revolt is not known.

Besieged at Bazas

Like Paulinus, the Goths too soon arrived at Bazas.

When Rome had heard that Athaulf had proclaimed Attalus as emperor, Constantius, the consul for the year, set off with a fleet for Narbonne. When the Goths in Bordeaux heard of this they had set fire to Bordeaux and retreated to Narbonne. But Constantius blockaded Narbonne with his fleet, trying to stop supplies arriving to sustain the Goths, and because of hunger they had to abandon the city and had proceeded to Bazas which they started to besiege.

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

It is here that we can pick up Paulinus’s story once again, because it was at Bazas that Paulinus made his ‘new error of judgement’. When the Goths arrived at the walls of Bazas, Paulinus was alarmed by ‘so sudden a danger’ and thought that he might be ‘stricken down’. But his error was that he hoped that he might be able to secure the protection of the king of the ‘people who were afflicting us with the long siege’ and ‘escape from the besieged city together with the large train of my dear ones’.

Paulinus tells us that this king had been ‘long since my friend’. Trying to secure the escape of himself and his ‘dear ones’, Paulinus went to the ‘king’, who he knew was only reluctantly oppressing them because he was being forced to do so by the ‘Gothic host’. No one stopped him and with hope in his heart he addressed his first words to the ‘friend’ who he thought would help him and his family. But Paulinus was to be disappointed. The king declared, says Paulinus, that ‘he could not offer me protection if dwelling outside the city, avowing that it was no longer safe for him, having once seen me, to suffer me to return to the city on other terms than that he himself should presently be admitted with me into the city – for he knew that the Goths again meant me mischief, and he himself desired to break free of their influence’.

I was dumbfounded, I admit, with alarm at the terms proposed and with exceeding fear at the danger threatened, but by the mercy of God who always and everywhere is with them who beseech his aid, I presently regained my faculties and, albeit quaking, boldly set myself to foster in my interest the design of my still wavering friend, discouraging difficult conditions which I knew must be utterly rejected, but strongly pressing for instant attempt to secure the attainable. These the far-sighted man speedily approved and adopted. Straightway, when he had for himself conferred with the leaders of the city, he so hastened on the business in hand as to complete it in a single night through the help of God, whose bounty he now enjoyed, thereby to help us and his own people

The travels of the Alans

The travels of the Alans

Historians have spilt a lot of ink debating who this ‘king’ was; the king who was Paulinus’s friend. It might seem obvious that he was talking about King Athaulf, but given what was to happen next many tend to believe it was actually a king of the Alan forces that were with the Goths at Bazas, perhaps even, some have guessed, the well-known Alan king Goar.

The whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords. First the king’s wife is delivered to the Romans as a hostage, the king’s favourite son also accompanying her, while I myself am restored to my friends by one of the articles of peace, as though I had been rescued from our common enemy the Goths: the city’s boundaries are fenced round with a bulwark of Alan soldiery prepared for pledges given and received to fight for us whom they, lately our enemies, had besieged. Strange was the aspect of the city, whose unmanned walls were compassed on every side with a great throng of men and women mixed who lay without; while, clinging to our walls, barbarian hosts were fenced in with wagons and armed men. But when they saw themselves thus shorn of no slight portion of their host, the encircling hordes of ravaging Goths, straightway feeling they could not safely tarry now that their bosom friends were turned to mortal enemies, ventured no further effort, but chose of their own accord to retire hurriedly.

Bazas today

Bazas today

As you can see the evidence contained in Paulinus’s story can be used to support both views on the identity of his friend the ‘king’. For what it is worth I tend to the view that Paulinus’s royal friend was the chief of the Alan army which had for long been allied to these Goths. Perhaps Paulinus and he had become friends in Bordeaux when Paulinus was acting as a ‘procurator’ for the puppet Attalus? We don’t know. Paulinus had gone to the ‘king’ to try to secure the safe escape of him and his family, but the king told him that he was being constrained by the Gothic host and  now that he had been seen talking with Paulinus he would no longer be safe if he remained outside the city walls. The king told him that the Goths meant him (Paulinus and the Gall-Romains of Bazas) mischief and that he too ‘desired to break free of their influence’. But after negotiations on terms, Paulinus and the king had agreed, and it was all to happen in a ‘single night’. It was then, perhaps during the night, that ‘the whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords’ and enters the city. The Alans moved to defend the city, and when the besieging Goths saw that they had been ‘shorn of no slight portion of their host’, who had been their ‘bosom friends’ but who had turned to ‘mortal enemies’, they left.

Paulinus, his family and the Gallic residents of Bazas had been saved by the Alans.

Thus did a great business, rashly commenced by me, result in a happy issue through the Lord’s kindly aid, and God turned my misjudgement into fresh joys in the deliverance of many from the siege along with me..

The Alans too soon departed, ‘though prepared to maintain loyally the peace made with the Romans wherever the chance which befell might have carried them’.

Frustrated by his wife again

Paulinus was still only thirty-seven, but having been, he says, exposed to barbarous peoples for a long time, he was convinced that he should ‘linger’ in Gaul no longer, but rather should take his wife and children out of the country ‘with all possible speed’ and ‘make my way directly to that land where a large part of my mother’s property still remained intact, scattered among full many states of Greece and Epirus the Old and New’:

For there the extensive farms, well-manned by numerous serfs, though scattered, were not widely separated and even for a prodigal or careless lord might have furnished means abundant.

But rather than leave immediately, for some reason Paulinus took himself off for a few months to live alone as a hermit, but he returned to his family the following Easter. ‘Then also still unbroken were the ranks of my own family which I now found I could not leave and yet could not continually maintain, now that my foreign income was curtailed.’

Once again it was Paulinus’s wife who prevented the family’s escape:

But from seeking out my own property — whose value and position, I recall, was set forth by me in a previous passage — I was hindered by my wife who stubbornly refused to yield for our general good, refusing from undue fear to make the voyage; and I held it right for me not to tear her away anywhere against her will, and no less wrong to leave her, tearing her children from her.

Having been disappointed in his hopes of ‘enjoying repose’ on his own property, the next few years were spent still in Aquitaine ‘in perpetual exile with varying fortunes’.  His wife’s mother died, then his mother, then his wife, who’ when she lived, thwarted my natural hopes through the hindrance of her fears’. But then as his sons reached manhood they left too. They went to Bordeaux, where they thought they could find ‘freedom’, ‘albeit in company with Gothic settlers’. They had gone back to the family estates in Bordeaux which they would have to share with the Goths who had occupied them.

Although he hadn’t wanted his sons to go he hoped that while in Bordeaux they would ‘advance the interests of their absent father’ and share some of the income ‘such as it might be’ from the family estates. But in this too Paulinus was to be disappointed. One son, still a youth but already a priest was soon to meet a sudden and untimely death.  It’s possible that he had been killed because Paulinus tells us that with his son’s death ‘all such of my possessions as he held were wholly torn from me by the single act of many robbers’. His other son was also ‘ill-starred’; he ‘experienced both the king’s friendship and his enmity, and after losing all my goods came to a like end’.

A lonely life in Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Paulinus was left alone, his wife dead, his two sons killed, all his property in Bordeaux lost. He chose then finally to leave Aquitaine and go to Marseilles, where he had a small property, ‘part of my family estate’.

Here no fresh revenues were like to give rise to great hopes — no tilth tended by appointed labourers, no vineyards (on which alone that city relies to procure from elsewhere every necessary of life), but, as a refuge for my loneliness, only a house in the city with a garden near, and a small plot, not destitute of vines, indeed, and fruit-trees, but without land without tillage. Yet the outlay of a little toil induced me to lavish pains in tilling the vacant part — scarce four full acres — of my exhausted land, and to build a house upon the crest of the rock, lest I should seem to have reduced the extent of soil available. Further, for the outlay which the needs of life demand, I made it my hope to earn them by renting land, so long as my house remained well stocked with slaves, and while my more active years furnished me with undiminished strength. But afterwards, when my fortunes in a world ever variable changed for the worse in both these respects, by degrees, I admit, I was broken down by troubles and by age: so as a wanderer, poor, bereaved of my loved ones, I readily inclined to new designs, and, greatly wavering betwixt various purposes, thought it profitable to return to Bordeaux.

Even though Paulinus’s house in Marseilles was ‘well stocked with slaves’, he still couldn’t make this small property support him in any way near the level he expected for himself. How long he stayed in Marseilles before returning to Bordeaux in unknown but it was no doubt many years because he had been ‘broken down by troubles and by age’. It’s likely that Paulinus was in his fifties or, more likely, sixties when he decided to return to his family home in Bordeaux.

Old age in Bordeaux

Arriving back in Bordeaux, Paulinus would have found the Goths still very much in control. Having left Bazas in 414, they had briefly gone to Spain but had returned and established a Gothic kingdom in Aquitaine which they ruled from their capital of Toulouse. Bordeaux was one of their principle cities.

Paulinus returned to his grandfather’s estate where he found and occupied a house ‘in semblance still my own’, but he had to live at the ‘charge of others’. As an old man he had finally run out of any means to support himself. He had even mortgaged his property in Marseilles and then under the terms of the mortgage lost it; he was saved by one amazing incident. In his hour of desperation, he says:

Thou (God) didst raise up for me a purchaser among the Goths who desired to acquire the small farm, once wholly mine, and of his own accord sent me a sum, not indeed equitable, yet nevertheless a godsend, I admit, for me to receive, since thereby I could at once support the tottering remnants of my shattered fortune and escape fresh hurt to my cherished self-respect.

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

This unexpected payment from a Goth who now lived on one of his family farms was, as Paulinus says, a ‘godsend’. He adds: ‘Rejoicing in my enrichment with this exceeding gift, to thee, Almighty God, I owe fresh thanks, such as may almost overwhelm and bury all those preceding, whereof each page of mine holds record.’

And in his ‘decrepit age’ in Bordeaux, living on just the money received from the kind Goth, Paulinus wrote about his life, the story I have been telling. He died in his eighties around the year 460.

Whatever lot awaits me at my end let hope of beholding thee, O Christ, assuage it, and let all fearful doubts be dispelled by the sure confidence that alike while I am in this mortal body I am thine, since all is thine, and that when released from it I shall be in some part of thy body.

Sources and references:

bbWalter Goffart, Barbarians and Roman, The techniques of accommodation, 1980; John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton(eds0, Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of  Identity?, ed., 1992; R. Samson, Slavery, the Roman Legacy, in Drinkwater and Elton; Herwig Wolfram, The Goths, 1979; Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974;  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Georges Labouysse, Les Wisigoths, 2005; Bernhard Bachrach, A History of the Alans in Gaul, 1973; Raymund van Dam, Leadership and Community in late Antique Gaul, 1985, Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman World, 376-568, 2007; Joan Hussey (ed), The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol.3.


Chaque année, au printemps, les voiles blanches des barques de ces hommes du Nord apparaissaient sur les bords de ces fleuves, le Rhin, la Seine ou la Garonne. Les populations riveraines s’enfuyaient, pleines d’effroi, se dispersaient au loin dans les forêts, ou s’enfermaient dans les villes fortifiées. La Loire, avec son large lit et ses eaux abondantes dans la saison des pluies, leur donnait un accès facile jusqu’au cœur du pays. (Histoire de l’abbaye de Micy-Saint-Mesmin. By L’Abbé Eugène Jarossay, 1902)

 Three brothers fight

The Frankish emperor Ludwig ‘the Pious’ (called Louis by the French) died on an island in the Rhine at the end of the year 840. He had reigned through twenty-six troubled and violent years. The Carolingian empire was now falling apart. Since 829 Louis and his sons, Lothar, Ludwig ‘the German’ and Charles ‘the Bald’, had been fighting each other for control of the far-flung but fragile empire that Louis’s father Charlemagne had carved out. Each of the three sons was fighting for a large share of their father’s inheritance when he died. Their nephew Pepin II of Aquitaine was also involved.

The Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, 841

The Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, 841

Following Louis the Pious’ death, the years 840-843 were to be marked by the confrontation between the three brothers. In these fights the chief of the Celtic realm of Brittany, Nominoë, initially remained faithful to the western Frankish king, Charles the Bald, who had inherited what one would soon be able to call France. At the start of 841 Charles the Bald went to Le Mans, where he met Lambert, a former count of Nantes. From Le Mans Charles sent an embassy to Nominoë asking him to recognise his authority. According to the Frankish chronicler Nithard, himself a grandson of Charlemagne, Nominoë sent Charles presents and promised to serve him faithfully. He kept his promise because he sent a contingent of Breton warriors to fight in Charles’ army, which on 25 June 841, allied with Louis/Ludwig the German, defeated the forces of their brother Lothar at the horrific but decisive battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, near to Auxerre. It is even possible that Nominoë was also present at the battle.

Lothar had been defeated and the next year his victorious brothers, Ludwig the German and Charles the Bald (who was only eighteen at the time of the battle), met at Strasbourg to make oaths of mutual support and help against Lothar, who wasn’t by any means finished.



Our concern here is with the story of the city of Nantes, which lies on the River Loire in the march (borderland) of Brittany, and with the Vikings who had been attacking the coasts of Gaul for some time. Lothar had often used the Vikings, usually based on their Frisian island of Walcheren, as allies or mercenaries, to help him fight his brothers. Just one month before the major battle of Fontenoy, a fleet of Viking ships had raided up the River Seine as far as Rouen, arriving just after Charles the Bald’s army had managed to cross the river by tying together boats they had found to make a bridge. Charles was on his way to fight Lothar and the strong suspicion is that the Vikings, under their leader Asgeir, were acting at the behest of Lothar, trying to distract or detain Charles’ army. It is interesting to note that in the same year, 841 (whether before or after the Seine raid is unknown), Lothar officially granted the Frisian island of Walcheren to one of the Vikings who was probably with Asgeir at Rouen. The Frankish chronicler of St. Bertin, Prudentius of Troyes, was disgusted:

To secure the services of Haraldr, who along with other Danish pirates had for some years been imposing many sufferings on Frisia and other coastal regions of the Christians, to the damage of his father’s interests and the furtherance of his own, he (Lothar) now granted him Walcheren and the neighbouring regions as a benefice. This was surely an utterly detestable crime, that those who brought evil on Christians should be given power over the lands and people of Christians, and over the very churches of Christ; that the persecutors of the Christian faith should be sent up as lords over Christians, and Christian folk have to serve men who worshipped demons.

Fight for the county and city of Nantes

Charles the Bald

Charles the Bald

But the battle of Fontenoy had other consequences. Ricwin, the count of Nantes, had been killed there. Lambert, who had himself fought with Charles at Fontenoy, asked the young king Charles to grant him the county. But Charles for some reason suspected Lambert’s loyalty and granted Nantes instead to the powerful magnate Rainald of Herbauges. This turned Lambert against Charles and he immediately went to meet the Breton Nominoë and asked that the Bretons join him to take Nantes by force. For reasons that remain unclear Nominoë agreed. Perhaps he was fearful of Rainald who now controlled the whole lower Loire or perhaps Lothar had persuaded him to defect and join him.

In the summer of 843, Lothair or perhaps his supporter Lambert II of Nantes succeeded in persuading Nominoe to abandon Charles and go over to the Emperor (i.e. Lothar). Nominoe was thereafter a constant enemy of Charles and his authority in Neustria, often acting in concert with Lothair, Lambert, and Pepin II of Aquitaine. Breton troops fought under Lambert in Neustria and when, in June 844, Charles was besieging Toulouse, Nominoe raided into Maine and plundered the territory. In November 843, Charles had marched as far as Rennes to compel Breton submission, but to no effect.

It was in this region that the Vikings were making many of their raids, based each summer on the island of Noirmoutier at the mouth of the River Loire. Rainald had already fought against the Vikings, and it is quite likely that this was the reason Charles the Bald had chosen to appoint such a powerful chief at this crucial spot which controlled access to the rich Loire valley.



Whatever the case, in 843 Nominoë and Lambert both deserted Charles – implicitly at least in favour of Lothar. They started to march south towards Nantes. Count Rainald, possibly on  Charles the Bald’s orders, moved north to meet them. Near the town of Messac on the River Vilaine, which divides Nantes from Vannes, Rainald came across half the Breton force, under Nominoë’s son Erispoë, who had just crossed the river. He attacked, but the Bretons got the upper hand and he had to retreat to the River Yzar, near the village of Blain, where his warriors rested. Lambert hadn’t been at the Messac fight because he was waiting to meet some other Bretons. But he soon joined forces with Erispoë and they soon found and massacred Rainald himself and most of his nobles at Blain. Rainald’s army had been resting unarmed by the river!

Lambert managed to enter Nantes but the citizens threw him out after only two or three weeks.

The Viking attack on Nantes

It is here that the Northmen, the Vikings, enter the story. It is usually said that the Viking army and its raiding fleet, who were based for the summer on the nearby island of Noirmoutier, saw Nantes bereft of defenders and the death of Rainald and most of his vassals and decided to attack and pillage the city. As I will show it might not have been as simple as this.

vikings 4The basic facts about what happened are not in doubt. The Frankish Annals of St. Bertin report the following:

Northmen pirates attacked Nantes, slew the bishop and many clergy and lay people of both sexes, and sacked the civitas. Then they attacked the western parts of Aquitaine to devastate them too. Finally they landed on a certain island, brought their households from the mainland and decided to winter there in something like a permanent settlement.

In  A History of the Vikings Gwyn Jones adds some colour:

The day was 24 June, St. John’s day, and the town was filled with devout or merry celebrants of the Baptist’s feast, The Norwegian assault was of surpassing brutality. The slew in the streets, they slew in the houses, they slew the bishop and congregation in the church. They did their will till nightfall, and the ships they rowed downriver were deep-laden with plunder and prisoners. This may be more than the Count (Lambert) had bargained for but he did acquire Nantes.

I will return to the point of what Lambert might have bargained and whether the raiders were ‘Norwegians’ later. But actually we know quite a lot more about the sack of Nantes from the chroniclers.

viking mapThere is a story which may or may not be true telling how the Vikings had managed to take the city of Nantes so easily. Lietaud, a  tenth-century monk of St. Mesmin wrote about Nantes in his Miracles of St. Martin of Vertou. Using Ferdinand Lot’s summary:

The Northmen of which nobody had as yet heard spoken, had approached the ramparts (of Nantes) under the pretence of being merchants. The inhabitants who had heard nothing had left the gates open. The pirates entered the town hiding their arms under their clothes and slew the bishop and the population.

Not only that, but there is also an eyewitness account of what happened at Nantes in 843 written in about 866. In was found by Bertrand d’Argentré in a monument of the Abbey of St. Serge in Angers and published by him in his Histoire de Bretagne in 1588. It was republished in Rene Merlet’s Chronique de Nantes. I will refer to it again later on; here I will just précis a few lines:

After they had disembarked some of them climbed the walls of the city using ladders, others penetrated the cloisters. No one could prevent their entry. The entered the city on the holy festival of St. John the Baptist. The Bishop of the City was Gohardus, a simple, handsome and God-fearing man, with whom all the clergy and monks of the monastery were gathered…

There were also sheltering in the city itself a great multitude of people not only from the immediate region but also from far away towns – who had come not only from fear but also to celebrate the holy day.

Seeing their enemies entering the city walls they ran to the church of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul and barred the doors against the persecutors, praying for divine deliverance, as they couldn’t save themselves….. The Vikings came in…

The Vikings slew the entire multitude they found there without regard to age or sex. They cruelly killed the priest and bishop Gohardus who died saying ‘Sursum corda’. All the other monks, whether they were in the church, outside it, or at the altar were put to the sword and disembowelled…

This eyewitness then goes on to say that no one could express in words the ‘calamity and pestilence of this painful day’. He couldn’t describe it because of his tears:

Children hanging on their dead mothers’ breasts drank blood rather than milk, the stone flags of the church ran red with the blood of holy men and the holy altar dripped the blood of innocents, The pagans then pillaged all the city, seized all its treasures and set fire to the church. They then took a great numbers of prisoners as hostages for ransom and returned to their ships…

As we know, after sacking Nantes the Vikings continued their raids in the surrounding ‘western parts of Aquitaine’. The Miracles of St. Martin of Vertou tells us something about this too. Again using Lot’s words:

Not being in any hurry, the Northmen redescend the river to the monastery of Indre, situated on an island eight kilometres downstream of Nantes, spared no doubt by reason of prudence before the main attack, was this time burned on 29 June. The monks of St. Vertou, only two leagues from Nantes, had fear and took flight: they found a refuge at St. Varent, in the Thouarsais.

 Who were the Vikings who attacked Nantes?

The leader of the Vikings who attacked and plundered Nantes is given nowhere in the sources. Most historians think that he was in fact the same Asgeir who had raided up the River Seine to Rouen two years previously, in 841, and who reappeared on the Seine in 852. I tend to agree he might have been.

However, I think it is also quite possible that among the Viking leaders at Nantes was the famous, or infamous, Hastein/Hasting, who we know took a large fleet up the whole length of the River Garonne all the way to Toulouse in 844 (the year after the sack of Nantes). From there it was probably he who went on to raid in Christian Spain and Muslim Portugal and Andalucía later the same year. Hastein remained an important, and pretty well-attested, Viking leader for some decades. I will return to him on another occasion. But regarding Nantes, there is more evidence of his earlier activities; evidence that has rarely been noticed.

The cathedral of Coutances in present-day Normandy kept a chronicle of its history from the year 836, when it was first attacked by the Vikings. Although this has been lost it was copied in the thirteenth century and we can read what it has to say about Hastein.

Prima Normanorum gravis sima persecutione, nequissimi scilicet et sacrilegi Hasting suorumque praedatorum saeviente amplius quam trigenta annis, ab anno Dominicae incarnationis DCCCXXXVI…

viking ships 2Which roughly translates as follows: ‘The first severe persecution of the Northmen was by the wicked and sacrilegious Hasting, whose predatory violence raged for more than thirty years from year of our Lord 836… ‘ The cathedral of Coutances had been destroyed by Hastein/Hasting in 836, eight years before we find him at the walls of Toulouse.

It then goes on to describe in great detail the raids and atrocities committed by Hastein all over Flanders, ‘Normandy’, Burgundy and Brittany, as well as elsewhere.

The Chronicle of Tours is also informative:

Lotharii imperatoris anno primo, Hastingus cum innumera Danorum multitudine Franciam ingressus, oppida, rura, vicos, ferro, flamma, fame de populatur.

Which tells us that in the first year of the emperor Lothar (i.e. 841), Hastein came into Francia with innumerable Danes and everywhere destroyed towns and villages, and their people, with sword, flame and hunger.

So it could indeed be that Hastein was one of the Viking leaders at Nantes too.

Having left Rouen in 841, Asgeir and his fleet (whether or not including Hastein) would have returned to one of their island bases, either Walcheren in Frisia or the island of Noirmoutier at the mouth of the River Loire near Nantes. Walcheren was used as a Viking base all year round, even after the summer raiding season was over and their ships put in ‘hangars’. Noirmoutier had been used for some years as a summer base, but the Vikings first over-wintered there in 843/4, after their attack on Nantes.



The Translatio sancti Filiberti, composed only twenty years after the event, tells us that the Viking fleet which entered the Loire consisted of sixty-seven ships, ‘Nortmannorum naves sexaginta septem repentio Ligeris…’ The Annals of Angouleme says that these Vikings were ‘Westfaldingi’. Because Vestfold is an area of southern Norway (actually on the west side of the entrance to Oslo Fjord, immediately opposite the Jutland peninsular), this led the German historian Walther Vogel to suggest in 1906 that all these Vikings were ‘Norwegian’, and even that they may have come from the new Viking bases in Ireland. Robert Ferguson wrote in his The Hammer and the Cross that the ‘Norwegian Viking ships… had probably set out from a longphort base in Ireland’. It is a line that other historians have also rather blindly followed; it is unlikely to be true.

The most reliable sources we have for the attack on Nantes are the Chronicle of Nantes and the eyewitness account contained in the ‘Annals of Angers’. These refer both to Northmen and Danes, and thus, as the Danish Viking historian Else Roesdahl has argued, the Viking fleet that attacked Nantes was most likely made up of a mixed group of Danes, Norwegians and even Swedes.

At this time the word Northmen (Latin Nortmanni) was used as a catch-all term meaning any and all people from Scandinavia. Adam of Bremen writing in the north in the eleventh century said, ‘Danes and Swedes and the other peoples beyond Denmark are called Northmen by the historians of the Franks.’

vikingsattackThe eyewitness account of 843 contained in the Annals of Angers calls them ‘ferocious Northmen’, while the Chronicle of Nantes itself calls them ‘Northmen and Danes’. The Annals of Fontanelle, written in the Abbey of Fontanelle which Asgeir had plundered on his raid up the Seine in 841, simply says that, ‘in A.D. 841 the Northmen arrived on the twelfth of May with their chief, Asgeir’. It should also be noted that Norway was not yet a definite ‘country’. The province of Vestfold was for a long time claimed as, and de facto was, a part of the realm of the kings of Denmark. In 813 the Frankish Royal Chronicles report that, ‘The kings (of Denmark) were not at home but had marched with an army towards Westarfalda, an area in the extreme northwest of their kingdom’.

Of course it could well be that Asgeir himself was originally from Vestfold, along with many others in the Nantes fleet, but the explicit mention of ‘Danes’ as well as the generic ‘Northmen’ in the Chronicle of Nantes points, as Professor Roesdahl suggests, to a ‘multinational’ force.

Whatever the precise combination of geographic origins of the Viking at Nantes, the idea that they had come from Ireland (having sailed round the north of Britain it is said) seems a pure invention of Professor Vogel in 1906. It is far more likely that they had come either from the Viking island base of Walcheren in Frisia or, possibly, from a base in Denmark itself. The ‘Westfaldingi’ at Nantes were, I believe, under Danish control, royal or not.

Was Count Lambert in league with the Vikings?

Over the years it has been repeatedly suggested that the Viking attack on Nantes wasn’t simply an opportunistic raid by the Northmen based on the island of Noirmoutier once they saw that Nantes was defenceless, but that actually it was the result of an agreement between the former count of Nantes and the Viking leaders. Even the very authoritative Professor Gwyn Jones in A History of the Vikings wrote that ‘the rebel Count Lambert was ambitious to secure Nantes for himself’; and that ‘it is said that the Vikings came at his invitation, and that it was French pilots who conned them through the sandbanks, shallows, and uncertain watercourses, which in high summer were judged an absolute protection from naval assault’. Many other historians disagree for reasons I shall give. Professor Jones’ use of the sitting-on-the-fence passive construction ‘it is said’ perhaps indicates the uncertainty of the matter.

v 5The eyewitness account in the Annals of Angers says the following:

Triginta autem post haec elapsis diebus, mense junio , Normannorum ferox natio, numerosa classe advecti, Ligerim fluvium, qui inter novam Britanniam et ultimos Aquitaniae fines in occiduum mergitur Oceanum, ingrediuntur. Deinde, dato classibus zephiro, ad urbem Namneticam, impiissimo Lamberto, crebro exploratore, praecognitam, celeri carbasorum volatu pariter et remorum impulsu contendunt ; quam mox navibus egressi undique vallant, et sine mora, nullo propugnatore, capiunt, vastant, diripiunt…

Regarding Lambert this doesn’t tell us too much except that thirty days after the battle (of Messac/Blain on 24th May 843) he was ‘impious’ or traitorous and led the Viking ships up the Loire to Nantes to sack the city.

The tenth-century chronicler of Nantes tells us more. The editor of the chronicles, Rene Merlet, argued persuasively that the Nantes chronicler had a longer version of the ninth-century report now included in the Annals of Angers available; how else would he have got so much extra information? The chronicler says that after the battle of Fontenoy in 841, Lambert had asked Charles the Bald to return the county of Nantes to him, but Charles had refused, suspecting his loyalty, and had given it instead to Rainald. And so Lambert had gone to meet the Breton chief Nominoë and asked him to join forces and that they should go together to take Nantes by force. Nominoë agreed.

River Vilaine at Messac

River Vilaine at Messac

When Count Rainhald heard of this he gathered a great number of his ‘knights’ together and went to meet the Bretons at Messac on the River Vilaine, which marked the frontier of the counties of Nantes and Vannes. When Rainald arrived at the river he found that half of the Bretons had already crossed so he attacked them and the Bretons had to flee. Rainald then retreated to the banks of the River Ysar near Blain. Lambert hadn’t been at Messac because he had been waiting for other Bretons to join him. The two Breton armies then joined and quickly attacked Rainald’s forces at Blain; and because they had been resting unarmed on the ‘verdant’ riverbank the Bretons had been able to massacre them, and Count Rainhald was killed.

But, writes the Nantes chronicler, Lambert still wasn’t content, he wanted to seize the city of Nantes, so he went to get the help of the ‘Northmen and Danes who had often plundered throughout Gaul and Neustria’ (i.e. the kingdom of the west Franks):

Namque Normannos et Danos, quos superius diximus, fines Gallorum et Neustriensium maritimos navigando saepe depraedantes, ut erat affabilis et pro tune fuit inventor malorum, alloquens induxit,ut,per mare Oceanum navigantes, Britanniam novam circumirent, et per alveum Ligeris tutissime ad urbem Namneticam capiendam per venirent.

noirmoutier 2Being an eloquent plotter of evil deeds, Lambert had persuaded the Vikings to put to sea and he led then safely round the coasts of ‘new’ Brittany and up the River Loire to the city of Nantes. The city soon fell because it was defenceless; those who should have been defending it were all dead. We then hear that while the Vikings were ‘greedily’ ravaging and plundering the city Lambert told them of  a church full of gold and silver on the island of ‘Bas’ (Batz, behind St. Nazaire). So the Vikings gathered together all their ships and, led by Lambert who showed them the way, they rowed through the bays and coves of Brittany to Bas.

To sum up the case for the prosecution regarding Lambert’s culpability: The eyewitness report in the Annals of Angers implicates him. The chronicler of Nantes, probably basing his story on a longer but now lost version of the Angers document, clearly states that not only had Lambert gone to the ‘Northmen and Danes’ to induce them to come with him to retake Nantes, but he also says that Lambert then attracted them to take their pillaging into other regions of the Nantaise as well.  Although there is a lot of obscurity and questions of chronology, the case against Lambert looks strong.

Chronique de Nantes

Chronique de Nantes

Evidence to the contrary comes, once again, from the Nantes Chronicle. Here we are told that often the Vikings had taken and sacked the city and had ravaged other places in the region they took their booty and hostages/slaves back to their island liar of Noirmoutier. But once there and having hauled the enormous piles of plunder ashore in order to share it out, the Northmen had quarrelled about the division. The Northmen ‘forgot the fear of their princes’ and it came to fights; several were killed.  Seeing this, their ‘Christian captives’ managed to escape via ‘secret places’ on the island. One managed to take with him a chest containing a bible and other books which, the chronicler tells us, ‘are still kept in the church of Nantes’. Finally these ‘diabolical’ men were pacified and went back to their ships, but ‘because of fear of Lambert’ they dared not chase the escaped Christians who ‘God had delivered from their hands’.

It is because of this story that both the editor of the Nantes Chronicle, Rene Merlet, and the eminent French historians Ferdinand Lot and Louis Halphen, in their La Regne de Charles le Chauve (1909), reject the suggestion, so clear in the texts, that Lambert was in league with the Northmen. If the Viking didn’t pursue the escaped captives out of fear of Lambert then surely they were not allies?  One could think of others reasons for this fear but it’s probably fair to say that we’ll never really know if Count Lambert was in league with the Vikings are not. I tend to the belief that he was.

Coincidences or Policy?

When we start to look at the precise timing of the various Viking raids around the coasts of France, Brittany and Aquitaine during this period, we might start to ask if they were all spontaneous or opportunistic as they are often presented. The coincidences do seem to get too much.

Vikings take Paris in 845

Vikings take Paris in 845

Why was Asgeir’s Viking fleet raiding up the Seine to Rouen in 844 immediately after Charles the Bald’s army had just managed to cross the river by using a bridge of boats; just one month before the decisive battle of Fontenoy between Charles, Louis and their brother Lothar? In 844, why did the Viking fleet make its long rapacious trip down the River Garonne in Aquitaine to arrive at the walls of Toulouse at the same time that Charles the Bald arrived to repress his nephew Pepin of Aquitaine? I could go on.

While there is little doubt that the Northmen did often strike when the ‘targets’ were in disarray, and this was certainly the case all over ‘France’ in the 840s, they were also very much involved in the shifting power politics being played out in Europe at the time – though often as rather irritating minor players. Robert Ferguson sums it up:

The chaos (of these times) was compounded by the fact that the Danish royal families too were, for much of the time, engaged in dynastic struggles of their own, in the course of which it becomes very difficult to keep track of a meaningful distinction between, on the one hand, violent activity that might have been part of a coherent ‘foreign policy’ decided upon by a legitimate monarch and his advisers and carried out by a ‘national’ army, and, on the other, those actions – often the work of the same kings – which were more nothing more than privateering on a grand scale.  


Sources and references:

René Toustain de Billy, Histoire Ecclésiastique du Diocèse de Coutances, 1874; René Merlet, La Chronique de Nantes, 1896; Ferdinand Lot and Louis Halphen, La Règne de Charles le Chauve, 1909 ; L’Abbé Eugène Jarossay, Histoire de l’abbaye de Micy-Saint-Mesmin, 1902; Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings, 1968;Robert Ferguson, The Hammer and the Cross, 2009; Carolingian Chronicles, trans Berhard Walter Scholz, 2006; Janet L Nelson, The Annals of St-Bertin, 1991; Else Roesdahl, The Vikings, 1998;Peter Sawyer, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, 1997; Walther Vogel, Die Normannen und das frankische Reich bis zur Griindung der Normandie (799-911), 1906; Bertrand d’Argentré, L’histoire de Bretaigne, des roys, ducs, comtes et princes d’icelle: l’établissement du Royaume, mutation de ce tiltre en Duché, continué jusques au temps de Madame Anne dernière Duchesse, & depuis Royne de France, par le mariage de laquelle passa le Duché en la maison de France, 1588.

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

One spring night in the year 1190, a group of ten military transport ships en route for Lisbon were caught in a tremendous storm off the coast of Spain. The ships were part of a flotilla of over a hundred transports taking thousands of English and French soldiers to join Richard Coeur de Lion, the French king of England, in Marseilles. Richard had decided to join the third crusade to the Holy Land, there to join his Frankish cousins in their attempt to expel Saladin’s Muslim Saracens and retake Jerusalem. On one of the ships caught in the storm were over a hundred Londoners. One was William Fitz Osbert, who would later be called Longbeard because, wrote the greatest of England’s early medieval historians, Matthew Paris, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. William’s story can tell us much about life in England, and particularly in London, at the end of the twelfth century. Over a hundred years after the Norman Conquest the English were still suffering at the hands of their French conquerors.

A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens

A Child’s History of England by Charles Dickens

This is not a mystery tale, so here I’ll let the inimitable Charles Dickens summarize what happened to William.

There was fresh trouble at home about this time, arising out of the discontents of the poor people, who complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich, and who found a spirited champion in William Fitz-Osbert, called Longbeard. He became the leader of a secret society, comprising fifty thousand men; he was seized by surprise; he stabbed the citizen who first laid hands upon him; and retreated, bravely fighting, to a church, which he maintained four days, until he was dislodged by fire, and run through the body as he came out. He was not killed, though; for he was dragged, half dead, at the tail of a horse to Smithfield, and there hanged. Death was long a favourite remedy for silencing the people’s advocates; but as we go on with this history, I fancy we shall find them difficult to make an end of, for all that. Charles Dickens. A Child’s History England. 1852.

The Sources for William’s life

Matthew Paris

Matthew Paris

We are lucky because four contemporary chroniclers wrote about William’s life and death: William de Newburgh, Richard of Hoveden, Gervase of Canterbury and Ralph de Diceto. Hostile as most of them were, they are our primary sources for the story I will tell. Their testimony, and some of them witnessed some of the events, is supplemented by the slightly later narratives of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, as well as by evidence from contemporary legal reports and two short entries in chronicles of London, one of which was quoted at the start of this article.

Who was William Longbeard?

It is believed that William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do. William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. In order to raise the money needed to go on crusade William had leased or mortgaged his London house to his brother Richard. Richard will reappear later in our story in not very fraternal circumstances.

In Portugal

Angevin Ship

Angevin Ship

The story of the storm and what happened to William and his fellow Londoners in Portugal is told by Roger of Hoveden (Howden). Hoveden had also joined the king’s crusade and was in all likelihood aboard one of the English ships in the flotilla that left England around Easter 1190. Indeed, because of the tremendous detail included in his story we can conjecture that Hoveden was on board one of the ten ships caught in the storm off the coast of Spain.

Having left Dartmouth these ten ships set sail for Lisbon. I will let Roger Hoveden tell what happened then:

When they had now passed through the British Sea and the Sea of Poitou, and had come into the Spanish sea, on the holy Day of the Ascension of our Lord, at the third hour of the day, a mighty and dreadful tempest overtook them, and in the twinkling of an eye they were separated from each other.

While the storm was raging, and all in their afflictions were calling upon the Lord, the blessed Thomas, the archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, appeared at three different times to three different persons, who were on board a London ship, in which was William Fitz Osbert, and Geoffrey, the goldsmith, saying to them, “ Be not afraid, for I, Thomas the archbishop of Canterbury, and the blessed Edmund the Martyr, and the blessed Nicholas the confessor, have been appointed by the Lord guardians of this fleet of the king of England; and if the men of this fleet will guard themselves against sin, and repent of their former offense, the Lord will grant them a prosperous voyage, and will diet their footsteps in His paths.”

After having thrice repeated these words, the blessed Thomas vanished from before their eyes, and immediately the tempest eased, and there was a great calm on the sea.

The murder of Thomas a Becket

The murder of Thomas a Becket

The divine intervention of St. Thomas a Becket and the other saints had put an end to the storm. The Londoners’ ship had been swept past Lisbon and eventually came to anchor off the Portuguese town of Silves. Silves, Hoveden wrote, was which in those days was ‘the most remote of all the cities of Christendom, and the Christian faith was as yet but in its infancy there’, it having only been captured from the Moors by King Sancho I of Portugal the year before. The Londoners, including William, came ashore in a boat and were warmly welcomed by the bishop, clergy and Christian townspeople of the town because they knew that the Moorish ‘Emir’ might soon be coming to reclaim the town and thus they needed these ‘hundred young men of prowess’ who were very ‘well armed’ to help them fight off the Moors.

Fearing that these warriors might depart without helping them, the townspeople broke up their ship and ‘with the timbers of it made bulwarks for the city’, promising recompense later. With the help of the London crusaders the town prepared to defend itself.

In the meantime Botac El Emir Amimoli, emperor of Africa and of Saracenic Spain, levying a large army, marched into the territories of Sancho, king of Portugal, to take vengeance for the emperor of Africa, his father, who had died six years before while besieging Santa Erena, a castle of king Alphonso, father of the said Sancho, king of Portugal.

The ‘Botac El Emir Amimoli, emperor of Africa and of Saracenic Spain’, to whom Hoveden refers, was actually the Almohad Caliph Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur also known as Moulay Yacoub.

Succeeding his father, al-Mansur reigned from 1184 to 1199. His reign was distinguished by the flourishing of trade, architecture, philosophy and the sciences, as well as by victorious military campaigns in which he was able to temporarily stem the tide of Christian Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula

Silves in Portugal today

Silves in Portugal today

While all this was going on, the other nine ships that had been caught in the storm had made it to Lisbon. King Sancho sent envoys to them and ‘asked succours of them against the Saracens’. Cutting a long story short, the Portuguese king was ‘utterly destitute of resources and counsel,’ and as he had ‘but few soldiers… mostly without arms,’ was emboldened by the arrival of five hundred well-armed French and English and rebuffed the ‘emir’s’ offer to leave Portugal if he were given back the town of Silves.

On hearing of the arrival of the foreigners, the emperor was greatly alarmed, and, sending ambassadors to the king of Portugal, demanded of him Silva, on obtaining which, he would depart with his army, and restore to him the castle which he had taken, and would keep peace with him for seven years; but when the king of Portugal refused to do this, he sent him word that on the following day he would come to lay siege to Santa Erena. (Hoveden)

The Portuguese and their temporary French and English allies prepared to defend the town of Santa Erena, but suddenly news came that the Emir was dead and his army in flight. Actually Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur didn’t die until 1199, but in any case Sancho was safe for the time being.

King Sancho I

King Sancho I

Sancho thanked ‘the strangers’ and promised he would reward them handsomely. However, before they got back to their ships to continue on their journey to join Richard at Marseilles, sixty-three more transport ships of the king of England arrived in Lisbon, led by the Norman knights Robert de Sablé and Richard de Canville and comprising Richard’s Norman, Angevin and Breton fighters. Some of these new arrivals then proceeded to commit atrocities, as was the wont of most Frankish crusaders. Hoveden tells us that having disembarked ‘some evil doers and vicious persons… then committed violence upon the wives and daughters of the citizens (of Lisbon)’. ‘They also drove away the pagans and Jews, servants of the king, who dwelt in the city, and plundered their property and possessions, and burned their houses; and they then stripped their vineyards, not leaving them so much as a grape or a cluster.’

John Gillingham, a modern biographer of Richard I, wrote simply: ‘In an excess of religious zeal they attacked the city’s Muslim and Jewish population, burned down their houses and plundered their property. There was, however, no element of religious discrimination in the freedom with which they raped women and stripped vineyards bare of fruit. Eventually the exasperated king of Portugal shut the gates of Lisbon trapping several hundred drunken men inside the city and throwing them into goal.’

Before Sancho had trapped the crusaders in Lisbon, they had already killed more of the city’s citizens. Finally the Portuguese king, in fear of such a vicious army of crusaders, agreed with them that ‘past injuries should be mutually overlooked’ and the crusaders were thus free to continue their voyage to Marseilles; which after a long and eventful journey they reached in August.

Did William go to the Holy Land?

Where William had been during the time all this was happening in Lisbon is not known. His ship had been dismantled in Silves, but had he and his fellow Londoners rejoined the rest on the fleet bound for Marseilles and from there proceeded to the Holy Land? The records are silent. Yet the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Portugal was not the end of the crusading journey for William and the other one hundred Londoners caught in the storm. Most, though not all, historians agree.

Richard the Lionheart arriving at Acre

Richard the Lionheart arriving at Acre

As mentioned previously, Roger of Hoveden’s history provides an immense amount of detail on the events William and his colleagues had been involved in at Silves. He even mentions William by name. Where had Roger heard all this? It seems to be that there are really only two realistic options: either Roger had been with the Londoners at Silves and therefore witnessed events himself, or he had been aboard one of the other nine ships in the flotilla caught in the storm but which had made it safely to Lisbon, and there heard the story of the deliverance of the Londoners when they rejoined the main part of the English fleet.

The English crusader fleet, which certainly included Roger of Hoveden, arrived in Marseilles in August 1190. We hear nothing from him, or from anyone else, about the hundred Londoners returning to England. The most likely scenario is that after their stay in Silves the Londoners had rejoined the fleet in Lisbon or had been picked up in Silves when it passed the town on its way to Marseilles; which Hoveden tells us it did: ‘After this, they passed the port of Silva, which at that time was the most remote city of the Christians in those parts of Spain.’

Richard Massacres the Saracens

Richard Massacres the Saracens

I will pass over the deeds and misdeeds of King Richard and his multinational army of crusaders in the Holy Land. Suffice it to say that when the English fleet arrived in Marseilles, Richard had already left with his French army for Sicily. The fleet soon caught up with him, and after much violence there and after capturing Cyprus the crusaders finally made it to the Holy Land at the end of 1190. There they helped their Frankish cousins to capture Acre from Saladin after a long horrific siege. Richard took several thousand Muslim prisoners at Acre, but frustrated when Saladin had stalled the negotiations for their release he promptly massacred nearly 3,000 of them, decapitating them in full view of Saladin’s army.

Saladin stalled for time in the hope that an approaching Muslim army would allow him to retake control of the city. When Saladin refused a request from Richard to provide a list of names of important Christians held by the Saracens, Richard Coeur de Lion took this as the delaying tactic that it probably was, and insisted that the ransom payment and prisoner exchange should occur within one month. When the deadline was not met Richard became infuriated and decided on a savage punishment of Saladin for his perceived intransigence. Richard personally oversaw and planned the massacre which took place on a small hill called Ayyadieh, a few miles from Acre. The killings were carried out in full view of the Muslim army and Saladin’s own field headquarters. Over 3,000 men, women and children, were beaten to death, axed or killed with swords and lances.

If William Longbeard had gone with Richard to the Holy Land, as I think he did, he would have witnessed all this. One historian, Alan Cooper, believes that the horrors William witnessed at Acre had traumatised him and had made him more caring towards the poor and oppressed, and suggests that this might help to explain his subsequent actions back in London. This might well be true but there is no evidence for it.

Return to London

An engraving showing Richard  in prison

An engraving showing Richard in prison

King Richard and his French and English crusaders left the Holy Land in mid 1192, having failed to capture Jerusalem. The English contingent took ship and returned to England, but Richard, being a French-speaking Frenchman, wanted to get back to his French territories as soon as possible to continue his wars with the French king Philip Augustus. After being forced by bad weather to put in at Corfu, Richard was then shipwrecked at Aquileia and therefore set out overland with only a few guards. This was a mistake as shortly before Christmas 1192 he was captured near Vienna by his enemy Leopold V, Duke of Austria, who accused Richard of arranging the murder of his cousin Conrad of Montferrat. Richard was to remain a prisoner for until February 1194. A huge ransom was raised from his ever-suffering English subjects to secure his release.

One way or another William Fitz Osbert also made his way home to London, whether he was already long-bearded or not we don’t know. And here we finally come to the heart of William’s story. It’s all about money and tax. One of my favourite historians, Joseph Clayton, wrote in his Leaders of the People; Studies in Democracy:

Richard Coeur de Lion, occupied with the crusades, had no mind for the personal government of England. He depended on his ministers for money to pay for his military expeditions to Palestine. England was to him nothing more than a subject province to be bled by taxation.

This is undoubtedly true, although we might add that the French king of England also used his English realm as an abundant source of soldiers to fight in his wars; as he did his continental possessions too. But it was the English who had to pay for it all, and London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for King Richard’s massive ransom.

Taxing London

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

This was an intolerable burden on the English, a memory that was later to find its way into English folklore in the form of Robin Hood, Richard’s evil brother John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

But as always the rich and powerful tried, and often succeeded, in getting out of their duty to pay their share of these intolerable taxes. The burden fell on the poor.

When William Fitz Osbert returned to London from the Holy Land, probably in 1193, the people of London were once again being asked to raise a huge sum to pay the ransom needed to ensure King Richard’s release from captivity. Historian John McEwan puts it as follows:

In the 1190s, taxation was the immediate cause of the tensions between the rich and poor people of London. King Richard 1 needed funds to support his wars and crusading ambitions, and he placed a severe burden on the entire kingdom. In 1188 there had been a levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’. In 1193 the people had been called upon to contribute to the king’s ransom and then, just a year later in 1194, there had been another tax. These levies came over and above the regular sums extracted from the city, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demand on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

An Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot

An Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot

We know that at this time collecting such taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

But this excellent Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

The great early nineteenth century historian Sir Francis Palgrave put it thus:

Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom.


ralphRalph de Diceto, the French-born Dean of St. Paul’s, wrote that he had noticed tension building ‘between the rich and poor concerning the apportioning of the taxes payable to the treasury according to everyone’s means’. Roger of Hoveden said that ‘strife originated amongst the citizens of London, for not inconsiderable aids were imposed more often than usual because of the king’s imprisonment and other incidents, and in order to spare their own purses the rich wanted the poor to pay everything’. William of Newburgh wrote that Fitz Osbert claimed that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

London’s poor resented rich Londoners for not paying their fair share as much as they resented the exorbitant taxes themselves. This was certainly the view of William Fitz Osbert, who felt that it was unjust.

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. In fact Richard only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months. When he wasn’t on crusade or being held captive, he was otherwise constantly hacking his way through France, defending his vast territories there, and battling his countryman, the king of France, Philip Augustus.

Richard 1

Richard 1

The 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica had this to say about Richard:

Personally Richard, though born on English ground, was the least English of all our kings. Invested from his earliest years with his mother’s Southern dominions, Richard of Poitou had little in him either of England or of Normandy: he was essentially the man of Southern Gaul. Twice in his reign be visited England; to be crowned on his first accession, to be crowned again after his German captivity. The rest of his time was spent in his crusade, and in various continental disputes which concerned England not at all, except so far as she had to pay for them. The mirror of chivalry was the meanest and most insatiable of all the spoilers of her wealth. For England, as a kingdom, all that he did was to betray her independence by a homage to the emperor, which formed a precedent for a more famous homage in the next reign.

Though born in Oxford, Richard spoke no English. The English constitutional historian William Stubbs wrote:

He was a bad king: his great exploits, his military skill, his splendour and extravagance, his poetical tastes, his adventurous spirit, do not serve to cloak his entire want of sympathy, or even consideration, for his people. He was no Englishman, but it does not follow that he gave to Normandy, Anjou, or Aquitaine the love or care that he denied to his kingdom. His ambition was that of a mere warrior: he would fight for anything whatever, but he would sell everything that was worth fighting for. The glory that he sought was that of victory rather than conquest.

William accuses his brother of treachery

During Richard’s few months on this his second, and last, visit to England in 1194, William Fitz Osbert, who, as has been mentioned, had probably met Richard while they were together on crusade, took the unusual step of denouncing his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other wealthy Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they were traitors as well.

William of Newburgh wrote:

At last, a cruel and impudent act of his against his own brother served as a signal for his fury and wickedness against others; for he had an elder brother in London from whom, during the period, when he was at school, he had been accustomed to solicit and receive assistance in his necessary expenses: but when he grew bigger and more lavish in his outlay, he complained that this relief was too tardily supplied to him, and endeavoured by the terror of his threats to extort that which he was unable to procure by his entreaties. Having employed this means in vain, his brother being but little able to satisfy him (owing to his being busied with the care of his own household) — and raging, as it were, for revenge, he burst out into crime; and thirsting for his brother’s blood after the many benefits which he had received from him, he accused him of the crime of high treason. Having come to the king, to whom he had previously recommended himself by his skill and obsequiousness, he informed him that his brother had conspired against his life — thus attempting to evince his devotion for his sovereign, as one who, in his service, would not spare even his own brother; but this conduct met with derision from the king, who probably looked with horror on the malice of this most inhuman man, and would not suffer the laws to be polluted by so great an outrage against nature.

Ralph de Diceto, the Dean of St. Paul’s, was even more damning. He said that William ‘in his meetings pursued to the death his carnal brother and two other men of good repute as if they were guilty of betraying the king’.

palgraveSummarizing the evidence of these two chroniclers, Sir Francis Palgrave wrote:

William with the long beard had an elder brother, Richard Fitz Osbert. To this relative he had been indebted for support when young, and whilst pursuing his studies. Extravagant and profuse in more advanced age, William attempted to encroach upon Richard’s bounty, and strove to obtain by threats, the relief which had been denied to his solicitations. He now sought the blood of this near kinsman, persecuting him to the death with the utmost virulent hostility.

William went personally to see the king, who was still in England, and ‘availing himself of the intimacy which he had acquired he denounced Richard Fitz-Osbert as a traitor, a conspirator against the life of the king’.

Longbeard repaired to Coeur de Lion; and, availing himself of the intimacy which he had acquired, he denounced Richard Fitz-Osbert as a traitor, a conspirator against the life of the King. Such was his devotion towards his Sovereign, he declared, that he would not spare his brother at the expense of his allegiance. (Palgrave)

The intimacy to which Palgrave refers was, he suggested, due to the fact that William had got to know the king during their time together on the third crusade. There seems to be no other explanation, and most historians concur.

William of Newburgh said that the accusation was spurned by the king because of his horror at such natural cruelty. Even a conservative like Palgrave had to demur; he asked whether ‘Richard, who was himself so devoid of natural affection, could be actuated by such a motive’.

English Pipe Roll

English Pipe Roll

We are fortunate that there is in the English Pipe Rolls an account of the proceedings in the case. Palgrave, the editor of the Pipe Rolls, summarizes what happened in November 1194:

It appears, then, by the entries upon the Roll, that on the Morrow of St. Edmund, in the sixth year of Richard I., William Fitz Osbert preferred his appeal before the Justices at Westminster against Richard Fitz Osbert, his brother. Speaking as a witness — for every Appellant supported his complaint by his own positive testimony — he affirmed that a meeting was held in the “stone house” of the said Richard, when a discussion arose concerning the aids granted to the King for his ransom. Richard Fitz Osbert exclaimed, “In recompense for the money taken from me by the Chancellor within the Tower of London, I would lay out forty marks to purchase a chain in which the King and his Chancellor might be hanged.”

There were others present who heard this speech, Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand, without doubt the two true men noticed, but not named, by Ralph de Diceto, whose brief account of the transaction agrees, so far as it extends, with the record. And they also vied with Richard Fitz Osbert in his disloyalty. “Would that the King might always remain where he now is,” quoth Jordan. In this wish Robert Brand cordially agreed. And, “Come what will,” they all exclaimed, “in London we never will have any other King except our Mayor; Henry Fitz Ailwin of London Stone”.

As was mentioned earlier, one of the signs that a Londoner was wealthy was if he possessed a stone house; and here is an explicit mention that Richard Fitz Osbert’s meeting took place in his ‘stone house’.

We know from elsewhere that both Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand were both quite well-to-do London merchants. In later years they would often appear as witnesses on documents drawn up by the Mayor of London Henry Fitz Ailwin, who is referred to in William’s testimony.

It’s also important to notice that the Pipe Rolls tell us there were several others witnesses who agreed with the testimony William gave against his brother and the two other wealthy London merchants. In many ways the evidence suggests that it was actually William Fitz Osbert, the Longbeard, who was being most loyal to the king here. His brother had, after all, declared that he ‘would lay out forty marks to purchase a chain in which the King and his Chancellor might be hanged’. All three defendants had also agreed that ‘the King might always remain where he now is’, i.e. by now back home in France. In many ways the three defendants were being much more revolutionary than was William, who remained loyal to Richard and only wanted that the tax burden was shared fairly. The key difference being, as we will see, that Richard and his friends had gone in for a bit of revolutionary pub-talk, which they soon retracted, while William was to take his message to the common people, a much more dangerous thing.



Following the procedure at the time (and now) the defendants, or ‘appellees’, were then given their chance to reply. They denied the whole accusation ‘de verbo in verbum’ i.e. word for word. They asked that they be acquitted and demanded their right as citizens to defend themselves ‘by compurgation, according to the old Anglo-Saxon laws of their ancestors’.

In pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon times, a defendant ‘could establish his innocence by taking an oath and by getting a required number of persons, typically twelve, to swear they believed the defendant’s oath’. Now this system had always been open to abuse by the rich and powerful. Not only could rich defendants simply bribe witnesses to corroborate their oaths, but the oaths of rich or propertied people also counted for more than those of the poor. Nevertheless, the twelve people were the basis of the jury system in the present-day ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world.

Proceedings were then adjoined and ‘the Sunday next after the feast of St. Katherine’ (i.e. in three weeks time), was fixed as the date for the hearing to continue. The three defendants, Richard Fitz Osbert, Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand (who remember were on trial for the capital offense of treason), had to find persons who would pledge that they would reappear – i.e. people who in modern parlance would post a bail bond. The names of these pledge givers were recorded and included ‘many well-known names of citizens and civic families’. Palgrave commented: ‘The case of the appellees was therefore defended by the Magnates, to whom William with the long bearde was so much opposed.’

The date when the hearing was to reconvene at Westminster was then shifted to 21 December 1194, ‘on Sunday before Christmas next – to wit on the octaves of St. Hilary’. The text of the Pipe Roll then becomes unreadable, but, as Palgrave commented: ‘We can ascertain that the facts have been mistold by Neubrigensis (William of Newburgh).’ He added:

The accusation was followed up in due form of law before the Justices at Westminster, and without any reference to the King.

We don’t have the eventual verdict, but it seems reasonably clear that either the defendants were acquitted of treason or the suit against them was dropped, because they continued to be prominent citizens of London for some years to come.

Before we take the story further, it might be pertinent to ask if William was really motivated solely by spite and envy as some of the chroniclers say. When William had left on crusade, he had leased or mortgaged his house in London to his brother Richard. Perhaps Richard hadn’t paid all he owed? The earliest known reference to William Fitz Osbert is in the 1189 Pipe Roll, before he went on the Crusade, when he is mentioned as owing £40 for a writ he has taken out against another Londoner.

We must admit we don’t really know William’s motives for accusing his brother of treason. William was certainly very loyal to King Richard and it’s possible that when he had heard his brother promising not to pay anymore to the King, and indeed wishing him gone or dead, it was all too much for him when his rich brother either wouldn’t lend him any more money or, possibly, wouldn’t pay him the money he owed him. As we know family feuds can escalate, but still it is difficult to believe that William accused his brother of treason, for which he could be hanged, just because he wouldn’t lend him any more money.

The King departed one more for his French wars later in 1194, never to return.

William as a spokesman and leaders of the London poor

It was now, in 1195, that William Fitz Osbert, called Longbeard, started on his short career as a leader of and spokesperson for the ordinary citizens of London. Sometimes he has been called a popular agitator and often, by those hostile to him at the time and later, a dangerous demagogue. Palgrave wrote:

Fitz Osbert now re-appears in the City as a patriot. Those chroniclers who espouse his cause — and the coeval authorities display, most instructively, all the violent party feelings of the age — maintain, that, moved by an ardent zeal for justice and equity, he acted with specious fidelity as the advocate of the poor. Face to face he opposed the Aldermen, on all occasions: asserting that by the corruption of the “Nobiles” the King’s Exchequer was shamefully defrauded; and labouring to effect an equal and impartial assessment of the citizens according to their means.

I’ll return to this question at the end. For now let’s limit ourselves to the facts of what he actually did.

Rerum Angliarum - William of Newburgh

Rerum Angliarum – William of Newburgh

The contemporary chronicler William of Newburgh was only slightly less condemnatory of William Longbeard than some of the other chroniclers when he tells us:

Afterwards, by favour of certain persons, he obtained a place in the city among the magistrates, and began by degrees to conceive sorrow and to bring forth iniquity. Urged onward by two great vices, pride and envy, (whereof the former is a desire for selfish advancement, and the latter a hatred of another’s happiness) and unable to endure the prosperity and glory of certain citizens, whose inferior he perceived himself to be, in his aspiration after greatness he plotted impious undertakings in the name of justice and piety. At length, by his secret labours and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colours to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices; and when they rose up in indignation against him in consequence, he adopted the plan of sailing across the sea, for the purpose of lamenting to the king that he should have incurred their enmity and calumny in the execution of his service.

Roger of Hoveden wrote:

In the same year, a disturbance arose between the citizens of London. For, more frequently than usual, in consequence of the king’s captivity and other accidents, aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything. On a certain lawyer, William Fitz-Osbert by name, or Longbeard, becoming sensible of this, being inflamed by zeal for justice and equity, he became the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich as well as poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state …

gervaseWilliam was a very charismatic speaker. Even his most rabid critic, Gervase, a monk of Canterbury, had to admit that though William was ‘poor in degree, evil favoured in shape’, he was ‘most eloquent’ and ‘moved the common people to seek liberties and freedom, and not to be subject to the rich and mighty; by which means he drew to him many great companies, and with all his power defended the poor men’s cause against the rich’. William of Newburgh said, ‘he was of ready wit, moderately skilled in literature, and eloquent beyond measure,’ but added that ‘wishing, from a certain innate insolence of disposition and manner to make himself a great name, he began to scheme new enterprises, and to venture upon the achievement of mighty plans’.

William’s long beard was obviously something of a wonder to some of the chroniclers. Newburgh commented: ‘William, having a surname derived from his Long Beard, which he had thus cherished in order that he might by this token, as by a distinguishing symbol, appear conspicuous in meetings and public assemblies.’ A little later the great English historian Matthew Paris gave a different interpretation of William’s beard which rings slightly truer. Paris said that William and his kinsmen had adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters.

From Anglo-Saxon times the citizens of London (as elsewhere in England) had come together in assemblies called folk moots. While not fully democratic in the modern sense, these folk moots were a type of English proto-democracy and even in the late twelfth century, after more than a hundred years under the Norman yoke ordinary Londoners still cherished their lost freedoms and held folk moots, which a recent charter of King Richard had endorsed. In London these folk moots were usually held in St. Paul’s Churchyard. William addressed London’s citizens there. He told them that the taxes imposed to pay for the king’s overseas wars were being levied unfairly and unjustly, and that the poor were being made to pay all, while rich citizens were evading their duty. With his followers William also broke up meeting of the ‘full hustings’, which was the name given to the assemblies of City aldermen who met to agree on taxes and who was to pay what. The rulers in these hustings, we are told, ‘endeavoured to spare their own purses and to levy the whole from the poor’. Matthew Paris said that ‘owing to the craft of the richer citizens the main part of the burden fell on the poor’

William’s following continued to grow and the demands of the Londoners were starting to unsettle the rulers. According to Ralph de Diceto, the Dean of St. Paul’s, William asked the Londoners to make oaths that they would stick by him and each other. He also says that William’s ‘rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St. Paul’s’. As historian John McEwan says, ‘In disrupting official meetings, and by binding the citizens with oaths, Fitz Osbert threatened the established political order.’

Eventually it was said that William’s followers totalled 52,000; others put the figure at 15,000.

William goes to France to plead with the king

Tensions in the capital started to mount, and William decided to go to France to try to enlist the support of King Richard. William of Newburgh wrote that he ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity of the powerful’. Roger of Hoveden said that he travelled ‘to the King overseas (and) he obtained his peace for himself and the people’.

Statue of Hubert Walter at canterbury cathedral

Statue of Hubert Walter at canterbury cathedral

Whilst we only have Roger of Hoveden’s evidence regarding the reception William got when he met Richard in France, it does seem that it was at least mildly positive. Joseph Clayton wrote: Richard heard the appeal sympathetically enough, for after all, as long as the money was forthcoming, he had no particular desire that the pockets of the rich burghers should be spared at the expense of the poor, but left matters in the hands of Archbishop Hubert the Justiciar.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, was to be Longbeard’s nemesis. Whilst still bishop of Salisbury Walter had accompanied the king on the third crusade. He was the only English prelate to stay the full course of the king’s involvement. He was decidedly a ‘king’s man’ and upon his return to England in April 1193, while Richard was still being held captive, the king wrote to his mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, telling her that Walter should be chosen for the see of Canterbury, which he duly was, though without consultation with the bishops. On 25 December 1193 he was made Chief Justiciar of England, the effective ruler of the country in the king’s absence. After Richard’s fleeting visit to England in 1194, Walter remained justiciar as well as archbishop of Canterbury. Walter was ‘certainly no champion of the poor’. Gerald of Wales said that ‘he was neither gifted with knowledge of letters nor endowed with the grace of lively religion, so in his days the Church of England was stifled under the yoke of bondage’.

If, as seems likely, Richard had received William Longbeard warmly (he was intensely loyal to people who had been with him on his bloody crusade), this apparently annoyed Archbishop Walter enormously.

Hubert Fitz-Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s justiciary, being greatly vexed at this, issued orders that wherever any of the common people should be found outside the city, they should be arrested as enemies to the king and his realm. Accordingly, it so happened, that at Mid-Lent some of the merchants of the number of the common people of London were arrested at the fair at Stamford, by command of the king’s justiciary. (Hoveden)

William returns to London

Walter wanted to intimidate William’s supporters. Londoners still clung onto certain rights, one of which was the right not to be arbitrarily arrested within the city limits. But when outside London they were fair game for the Archbishop, hence the arrest of some London merchants in Stamford.

Upon his return, the Chief Justiciar or Regent, Archbishop Hubert, was moved to exceeding wrath, we may conjecture that the authority of the latter was restricted, or his discretion impugned. Hubert at once declared himself as the open adversary of William Fitz Osbert in particular, and of the citizens at large. Orders were issued by the Justiciar, that any one of the commonalty found without the walls of the City should be arrested as an enemy to King and Kingdom. Either the franchises of the citizens, or their strength, or perhaps both causes combined, restrained or deterred the Justiciar from attacking them within their own municipal territory. Beyond the city liberties, he did his worst; and, about Mid Lent, several London merchants, attending Stamford Fair, were seized pursuant to his commands. (Palgrave)

The coronation of Philippe II Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England

The coronation of Philippe II Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England

But the king trusted and needed the archbishop to extract the huge sums he needed for his never-ending French wars against the French king, Philip Augustus. As already mentioned, Richard really had no interest at all in how the monies to pay his multi-national army were raised, as long as the money arrived.

When William had returned to London from France he had soon discovered that any hope he had had regarding the equity of the new taxes being raised were in vain, so he starting addressing the citizens again.

William of Newburgh tells us:

On his return to his own home again he began afresh, with his accustomed craftiness, to act with confidence, as if under the countenance of the royal favour and to animate strongly the minds of his accomplices. As soon, however, as the suspicion and rumour of the existence of this plot grew more and more confirmed, the lord archbishop of Canterbury, to whom the chief custody of the realm had been committed, thinking disguise no longer expedient, addressed a congregation of the people in mild accents, refuted the rumours which had arisen, and, with a view to remove all sinister doubts on the subject, advised the appointment of hostages for the preservation of the king’s peace and fealty. The people, soothed by his bland address, agreed to his proposal, and hostages were given. Nevertheless, this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or saviour of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

Giving a perhaps more accurate translation of William of Newburgh’s words, Archbishop Walter had ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely… and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’. Intimidated by Walter’s power the London citizens gave over the demanded hostages, who, as was normal practice, would be killed if the Londoners didn’t remain loyal.

This didn’t stop William Longbeard however. His most rabid critic, Gervase, who was Archbishop Walter’s sacristan at Canterbury, tells us that still ‘supported by the crowd (he) proceeded with a show of pomp and organised public meetings on his own authority.

Palgrave says that William, who was ‘safe within the walls of London, defied the Justiciar and the Royal authority’. His thousands of followers were ‘all arrayed against the rich and noble of the City, who were compelled to watch in arms, day and night, for the purpose of protecting their wealth, their honour, and their lives against this confederacy’.

Old St. Paul's

Old St. Paul’s

William had had no part in the proceedings when the archbishop and justiciar had demanded, and got, hostages from the Londoners. So once again he arranged a folk moot in St. Paul’s Churchyard. ‘He addressed a forcible and energetic discourse to the assembled people, inviting them to defend their case by rallying round him as the Protector of the poor,’

We even know some of the words William was wont to use when addressing the citizens of London at St. Paul’s, and perhaps elsewhere. ‘Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began’:

With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation [Isaiah 12:3]

And ‘applying this to himself’, he continued:

I am the saviour of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.

The Archbishop seeks William’s arrest

William was by now thoroughly hated by London’s powerful and particularly by Archbishop Walter, who decided that he was a dangerous demagogue and must be stopped. As intimidating his supporters hadn’t worked as much as he had wanted, though it did reduce William’s following and the scale of the protests somewhat, Walter took advice from the nobles and ‘summoned Fitz Osbert to appear and answer the accusations now preferred against him’.

As he possessed a mouth speaking great things, and had horns like a lamb, he spoke like a dragon; and the aforesaid ruler of the realm, by advice of the nobles, summoned him to answer the charges preferred against him. (Newburgh)

But when the time was come for William to appear, he ‘presented himself so surrounded by the populace, that his summoner being terrified, could only act with gentleness, and cautiously defer judgment for the purpose of averting danger’.

The archbishop decided he would have to use stealth to get his hands on William, who by now was deemed a real threat to the rulers of the country. He found two spies, ‘noble citizens’, who were to ‘act as intelligencers’.

Espying out the ways of the declining demagogue, they ascertained how and in what manner he could be safely and surely apprehended. (Palgrave)

Newburgh wrote: ‘The period, therefore, at which it was possible to find him (Longbeard) unattended by his mob being discovered by two noble citizens, especially now that the people, out of fear for the hostages, had become more quiet, he (Walter) sent out an armed force with the said citizens for his apprehension. As one of them was pressing him hard, he slew him with his own axe which he had wrested from his hand, and the other was killed by someone among those who had come to his assistance.’

William seeks sanctuary in St. Mary le Bow

Immediately upon this, he retreated with a few of his adherents and his concubine, who clave to him with inseparable constancy, into the neighbourhood of St. Mary, which is called Le-Bow, with the intention of employing it, not as a sanctuary, but as a fortress, vainly hoping that the people would speedily come to his aid; but they, although grieving at his dangerous position, yet, out of regard for the hostages or dread of the men-at-arms, did not hasten to his rescue. Hearing that he had seized upon the church, the administrator of the kingdom despatched thither the troops recently summoned from the neighbouring provinces. Being commanded to come forth and abide justice — lest the house of prayer should be made a den of thieves — he chose rather to tarry in the vain expectation of the arrival of the conspirators, until the church being attacked with fire and smoke, he was compelled to sally out with his followers: but a son of the citizen whom he had slain in the first onset, in revenge for his father’s death, cut open his belly with his knife. (Newburgh)

St. Mary le Bow

St. Mary le Bow

Hoveden tells a similar tale:

The…  justiciary then gave orders that… William Longbeard should be brought before him, whether he would or no; but when one of the citizens, Geoffrey by name, came to take him, the said Longbeard slew him; and on others attempting to seize him, he took to flight with some of his party, and they shut themselves in a church, the name of which is the church of Saint Mary at Arches, and, on their refusing to come forth, an attack was made upon them. When even then they would not surrender, by command of the archbishop of Canterbury, the king’s justiciary, fire was applied, in order that, being forced by the smoke and vapour, they might come forth. At length, when the said William came forth, one of them, drawing a knife, plunged it into his entrails, and he was led to the Tower of London…

Gervase of Canterbury simply tells us that William was promised his life if he would quietly surrender; but that he refused ‘to come forth; whereby the Archbishop called together a great number of armed men, lest any stir should be made. The Saturday, therefore, being the Passion Sunday even, the steeple and church of Bowe were assaulted, and William and his accomplices taken, but not without bloodshed for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church, and he was brought to the Archbishop in the Tower…

We are also told that captured with William was his concubine ‘who never left him for any danger that might betide him’. And so, already having been knifed in his entrails, William was ‘secured, bound with fetters and manacles, and carried to the Tower of London’.

The ‘Majores’ of the City and the King’s officers, all joined in urging the Justiciar to inflict a condign punishment upon the offender. Fitz Osbert, by advice of the ‘Proceres’ assembled at the Tower, was condemned to die. (Palgrave)

Hanged in chains at Tyburn

A shameful death for upholding the cause of truth and of the poor.  Matthew Paris

The sentence was executed with the usual barbarity. Palgrave writes: ‘Stripped naked, and tied by a rope to the horse’s tail, William was dragged over the rough and flinty roads to Tyburn, where his lacerated and almost lifeless carcass was hanged in chains on the fatal elm’; together with nine of his accomplices.

William Longbeard being dragged to his death at Tyburn

William Longbeard being dragged to his death at Tyburn

The Dean of St. Paul’s, Ralph de Diceto, probably witnessed William’s journey from the Tower of London to the gibbet at Tyburn, near present-day Marble Arch. He tells us that William ‘his hands tied behind him, his feet tied with long cords, was drawn by means of a horse through the midst of the city to the gallows near the Tyburn. He was hanged.’ The Canterbury monk Gervase almost gleefully wrote that William was ‘dragged, with his feet attached to the collar of a horse, from the aforesaid Tower through the centre of the city to the Elms (at Tyburn), his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the Elms with his associates and died’. Newburgh said: ‘Being, therefore, captured and delivered into the hands of the law, he was, by judgment of the king’s court, first drawn asunder by horses, and then hanged on a gibbet with nine of his accomplices who refused to desert him’

Slightly later Roger of Wendover wrote in Flowers of History:

In order that the punishment of one might strike terror into the many, he was deprived of his long garments, and, with his hands tied behind his back, and his feet fastened together, was drawn through the midst of the city by horses to the gallows at Tyburn; he was there hung in chains, and nine of his fellow conspirators with him, in order to show that a similar punishment would await those who were guilty of a similar offence.

All the chroniclers who wrote about William’s life and death wrote in Latin. There are however two short entries under the year 1196 in English. The first is found in the Chronicle of London:

In this yere the kyng come in to Engelond, and tok the castell of Notynghame, and disherited John his brother. And the same yere kyng Richarde was crowned ayeyne at Westm’. And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taughte.

Hanging in chains

Hanging in chains

second is in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London under the date of the 8th of April:

In this yere was one William with the long berde taken out of Bowe churche and put to dethe for herysey.

The Elms near Tyburn were called “the King’s Gallows” and were probably first erected around 1110. Tyburn from the beginning was clearly the King’s gallows for London and Middlesex criminals. That it was placed outside the boundary of the city indicates the administration of the criminal law by the King’s courts instead of by the local or manorial courts. The first recorded execution there is actually that of William Longbeard. It was to remain the main place of execution for London and Middlesex until 1783.

In Alfred Marks’ Tyburn Tree, Its History and Annals it is said:

The manner of execution at Tyburn seen in William Fitz Osbert’s execution was to become the norm later. That is, the condemned criminal, after being drawn to Tyburn on a hurdle or rough sledge by a horse, at Tyburn was first hanged on the gallows, then drawn or disembowelled, and finally quartered, his quarters being placed high in public places as a warning to others. Thus, because Tyburn was the King’s Gallows, those who were guilty of Treason were Hanged, Drawn and Quartered on this spot.



Actually the evidence tends more towards the view that after being ‘dragged over the rough and flinty roads to Tyburn’ William was then hanged in chains (see here for what this involved). Whether he was subsequently disembowelled (drawn) and quartered is not at all clear. Joseph Clayton sums up William’s sad death:

Just before Easter — the wounded man was stripped naked, tried to the tail of a horse and dragged over the rough stones of the streets of London. He was dead before Tyburn was reached, but the poor broken body, on whom the full vengeance of the rich and mighty had been wreaked, was strung up in chains beneath the gallows elm all the same. Bravely had Longbeard withstood the rulers of the land in the day of his strength; now, when life had passed from him, his body was swinging in common contempt. And with him were nine of his followers hanged. So died William, called Longbeard, son of Osbert, “for asserting the truth and maintaining the cause of the poor”.

Still a threat after death

But William remained a threat to the rulers after his death.

And since it is held that to be faithful to such a cause makes a man a martyr, people thought he deserved to be ranked with the martyrs. For a time multitudes — the very folk who had fallen away from their champion in the hour of battle and need — flocked to pay reverence to the ghastly, bloodstained corpse that hung at Tyburn, and pieces of the gibbet and of the bloodstained earth beneath were carried off and counted as sacred relics. All the great, heroic qualities of the man were recalled. He was accounted a saint. Miracles were alleged to take place when his relics were touched. (Joseph Clayton)

William of Newburgh, though pleased with William death, still admitted that his followers bewailed him bitterly as a martyr. ‘Miracles were wrought with the chain that hanged him. The gibbet was carried off as a relic, and the very earth where it stood scooped away. Crowds were attracted to the scene of his death, and the primate had to station on the spot an armed guard to disperse them.’

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh down an hedge, a serpent shall bite him” [Eccl. 10:8], the contriver and fomenter of so much evil perished at the command of justice, and the madness of this wicked conspiracy expired with its author: and those persons, indeed, who were of a more healthful and cautious dispositions rejoiced when they beheld or heard of his punishment, washing their hands in the blood of the sinner. The conspirators, however, and seekers after novelty, vehemently deplored his death, taking exception at the rigor of public discipline in his case, and reviling the guardian of the realm as a murderer, in consequence of the punishment which he had inflicted on the mischief-maker and assassin. (Newburgh)

William didn't become a mike these later English Catholic martyrs, hanged, drawn and quartered

William didn’t become a mike these later English Catholic martyrs, hanged, drawn and quartered

So the citizens of London reviled ‘the guardian of the realm as a murderer’; that is Archbishop Walter. Walter’s own sacristan at Canterbury, Gervase, relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. Newburgh’s second chapter concerning William is titled ‘How the common people desired to honour this man as a martyr, and how this error of theirs was extinguished’. I think it worth quoting in full:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honoured in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” [see Eccles 1:15, Vulgate] and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honour they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death. To such an extent did this most foolish error prevail as even to have ensnared, by the fascination of its rumours, the more prudent, had they not used great caution in giving a place in their memory to the stories they heard concerning him. For, in addition to the fact of his having (as we have before narrated) committed murder shortly before his execution, which alone should have sufficed to every judicious understanding as a reason against the punishment being considered a martyrdom, his own confession before death must redden with a blush the countenances of those who would fain make unto themselves a martyr out of such a man, if any blood exist in their bodies. Since, as we have heard from trustworthy lips, he confessed, while awaiting that punishment by which he was removed — in answer to the admonitions of certain persons that he should glorify God by a humble though tardy confession of his sins — that he had polluted with carnal intercourse with his concubine that church in which had sought refuge from the fury of his pursuers, during the stay he had made there in the vain expectation of rescue; and what is far more horrible even to mention, that when his enemies had broken in upon him, and no help was at hand, he abjured the Son of Mary, because he would render him no assistance, and invoked the devil that he at least would save him. His justifiers deny these tales, and assert that they were maliciously forged in prejudice to the martyr. The speedy fall of this fabric of vanity, however, put an end to the dispute: for truth is solid and waxes strong by time; but the device of falsehood has nothing solid, and in a short time fades away.

The administrator of the kingdom, therefore, carrying out the condign punishment of ecclesiastical discipline, sent out a troop of armed men against the priest who had been the head of this superstition, who put the rustic multitude to flight, and capturing those who endeavoured to maintain their ground there by force, consigned them to the royal prison. He also commanded an armed guard to be constantly kept upon that place, who were not only to keep off the senseless people, who came to pray, but also to forbid the approach of the curious, whose only object was amusement. After this had lasted for a few days, the entire fabric of this figment of superstition was utterly prostrated, and popular feeling subsided.

Gervase of Canterbury recorded that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.

Popular Agitator or Dangerous Demagogue?

The violence ordered by Archbishop Walter had crushed the incipient cult of William Longbeard ‘the Martyr’. As Sir Francis Palgrave said: ‘Hubert the Justiciar was able to chase away the votaries of Fitz Osbert, and to reduce the citizens to obedience’.

In addition, William of Newburgh spread the rumour that while seeking safety in the church of St. Mary le Bow, William ‘had polluted with carnal intercourse with his concubine that church in which had sought refuge from the fury of his pursuers’, that he had confessed to this, and that ‘what is far more horrible even to mention, that when his enemies had broken in upon him, and no help was at hand, he abjured the Son of Mary, because he would render him no assistance, and invoked the devil that he at least would save him’. As if William’s brutal death wasn’t enough, here was an attempt to besmirch William’s name forever; although Newburgh does have the grace to add: ‘His justifiers deny these tales, and assert that they were maliciously forged in prejudice to the martyr.’

So was William Longbeard a popular agitator for the poor of London or, as contemporary chroniclers and many later generations of historians, such as William Stubbs have called him, a dangerous ‘demagogue’? He was clearly both; it all depends whose side you are on.

Joseph layton

Joseph Clayton

Whatever his initial motives, it remains a fact that William Fitz Osbert was passionately concerned about the injustice in the way the people of London were being taxed to pay for the adventures of a absent foreign king, a king to whom William always regarded himself as loyal. He spoke for the ordinary citizens and they followed and venerated him. I can’t help but agree with Joseph Clayton:

Longbeard had roused the common working people to make a stand against obvious oppression and injustice — there was the head and front of his offending, there was his crime; earning for him not only a felon’s death, but the loss of character, and the branding for all time with the contemptuous title ” Demagogue.”

Yet in the slow building up of English liberties William Fitz Osbert played his part, and laid down his life in the age-long struggle for freedom, as many a better has done.

But it is equally well true that William had become dangerous for the French-speaking lords and priests and for the wealthier citizens of London. They couldn’t accept the challenge of William and his supporters to their rule and privileges; he had to be silenced. He was certainly a ‘dangerous demagogue’ to them.

Perhaps Alfred Marks, the historian of Tyburn, best sums it up:

What was he, unscrupulous demagogue or martyr in the cause of the poor? Each view was held by his contemporaries. He seems to have behaved very badly to his elder brother, whose care for him during his youth he repaid by bringing against him a charge of treason. On the other hand, it is clear that Longbeard’s enemies had against him a case which it was necessary to strengthen by baseless accusations. He was charged with blaspheming the Virgin Mary, and with taking his concubine into Bow Church. The last charge seems disproved by the circumstances in which Longbeard fled to the church for refuge. It was also set about that he was put to death for “heresy and cursed doctrine,” whereas it is obvious that his offence was political.

Postscript: What became of Archbishop Walter?

Although archbishop Walter had been able, to use Palgrave’s words, to ‘chase away the votaries of Fitz Osbert, and to reduce the citizens to obedience,’ the monks of Holy Trinity at Canterbury, to which the church at St. Mary le Bow belonged, were appalled that their archbishop had ‘had committed against the privileges of the sanctuary’ and subjected it to violence. They were, says Hoveden, therefore ‘unable to hold communication with him on any matter in a peaceable manner’, which ‘ultimately occasioned the loss of the great secular office which he held’.

As Joseph Clayton tells it:

In 1198, two years after the death of Longbeard, Hubert was compelled to resign the justiciarship. His monks at Canterbury, to whom the Church of St. Mary, in Cheapside, belonged, and who had no love for their archbishop, indignant at the violation of sanctuary and the burning of their church, appealed to the king and to the pope, Innocent III, to make Hubert give up his political activities and confine himself to the work of an archbishop. In the same year, a great council of the nation, led by St. Hugh of Lincoln, flatly refused a royal demand for money made by Hubert.

Innocent III was against him, the great barons were against him, and Hubert resigned. But he held the archbishopric till 1205.


Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of history, Comprising the history of England from the descent of the Saxons to A.D. 1235; formerly ascribed to Matthew Paris. ed., J. A Giles (1849); Matthew Paris, Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21); F. Palgrave, ed., Rotuli curiae regis: rolls and records of the court held before the king’s justiciars or justices, (1835); Alfred Marks, Tyburn Tree, Its History and Annals (1908); Derek Keene, William fitz Osbert (d. 1196), populist leader, Oxford Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; J. H. Round, William Fitzosbert, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (1889);. William Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1874–78); Alan Cooper, William Longbeard and the Crisis of Angevin England (2013); Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England (1852); John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the crisis of 1196 in London (2004); Joseph Clayton, Leaders of the people; studies in democracy (1910); John Gillingham, Roger of Howden on Crusade, in Richard Cœur de Lion: Kingship, Chivalry and War in the Twelfth Century (1994); John Gillingham, Richard 1 (1999); Thomas Allen, History and Antiquities of London (1827); G. W. S. Barrow, The bearded revolutionary, History Today (1969); Alan V. Murray, Participants in the third crusade, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP; Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicle of England and France (1516), ed., Henry Ellis (1811); R. Holinshed, Of a conspiracy made in London by one William, and how he paid the penalty of his audacity, In Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577); R. Howlett, ed., Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, 2, Rolls Series, 82 (1885); Chronica magistri Rogeri de Hovedene, ed. W. Stubbs, 4 vols., Rolls Series, 51 (1868–71); Radulfi de Diceto … opera historica, ed. W. Stubbs, 2: 1180–1202, Rolls Series, 68 (1876); The historical works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs;  The chronicle of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, Rolls Series, 73 (1879); W. Stubbs, ed., Gesta regis Henrici secundi Benedicti abbatis: the chronicle of the reigns of Henry II and Richard I, AD 1169–1192, Rolls Series, (1867).

‘The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.’

English historians, particularly those of the Whig bent, have often portrayed Tudor England as a Golden Age. The centuries-long medieval wars between barons and kings, barons and barons and kings and kings were over, at least for now. Having lost the Hundred Years War, with some minor exceptions, England’s yeoman archers were no longer being dragged to France to fight and die trying to put an English king on the French throne, and England’s French royalty and nobility were finally starting to view themselves as English. England was taking its first tentative steps to greatness. To put it mildly all this is bunk when seen from the perspective of the majority of the people of England. Among many other repressive measures the Tudor monarchy also brought back slavery.

Following the Norman conquest of England, the English were subjugated and dispossessed of their land. Many English thanes and nobles fled abroad (see here for one example). But the vast bulk of the population didn’t have this choice and were reduced to serfdom. Slavery was abolished, in the sense that English people were no longer actually owned by the lords, although it can certainly be argued that the differences between slavery and serfdom were slight.

Wat Tyler - tricked and killed, 1381

Wat Tyler – tricked and killed, 1381

Be that as it may. Yet over a period of nearly 500 years following the Conquest, the English, as opposed to their French overlords, did somehow manage to keep some consciousness of their ‘inalienable right’ to be free. With Norman castles and armed French thugs all around them, they couldn’t do much to reverse their servitude, but they did try. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 were just two of the more famous but ultimately fruitless attempts to do so.

Throughout this time the English people were forced to give up most of their surplus (and some) to the Norman French kings and barons. The extracted money helped them fight their countless wars with each other and overseas; wars into which generations of ordinary people were also conscripted. Yet for all this most Englishmen and women were at least able to farm a little land and raise their families, the price of which was rent plus countless other feudal services due to their lords. Of course this was when they weren’t being decimated by famine, plague and rapacious armed knights. They dreamt of a ‘commonwealth’, they dreamt of being free of the Norman yoke, but they never had the power to achieve any of this.

And so we arrive at the Tudors. The fifteenth century Wars of the Roses were a series of fights between various baronial factions for the Crown. Eventually after a bloody game of royal musical chairs: Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (not to forget the brief Edward  V), and much material for Shakespeare, Henry Tudor gained the throne as Henry VII. The ‘Golden Age’ had arrived.

Actually among the interminable list of brutal and stupid kings of England over the last thousand years, Henry VII was one of the better ones. In his 24 year reign (1485-1509) he avoided wars, improved the house-keeping of government and at his death was able to bequeath his son Henry a huge royal fortune. Such kings are however not usually the stuff of national myth and good story-telling. Shakespeare wrote plays about almost all of Henry’s predecessors of the last hundred years and about his megalomaniac tyrant son Henry VIII, but nothing about Henry VII, a trend that continues with television drama to this day.

Kirkham - One dissolved monastery

Kirkham – One dissolved monastery

Henry VIII was, as I guess we all know, a tyrant and a megalomaniac and probably a misogynist to boot. When he wanted to be rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon and marry plain Ann Boleyn, the Pope wouldn’t give him a divorce. So Henry broke with Rome, divorced Katherine and married Ann. This didn’t make him a Protestant; Henry remained a Catholic in all other respects than adherence to Rome until his dying day. Having taken this step and needing more money, as all monarchs always do, Henry’s eye fell on the wealth of the Church in England. The Church and all its abbeys and monasteries still owned about a third of the whole land and wealth of the country. Henry set about stealing it. He started to dissolve (and demolish) the monasteries, cart away their movable wealth and seize their land. Much of the land he then sold on at knock-down prices to his favourite nobles and supporters.

The vast majority of English people remained deeply attached to the Catholic Church despite its long role in their own subjugation. Discontent and protest followed. Henry put these down with the usual royal brutality; the most famous (but not only) example being the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 (see here).

Medieval English fields

Medieval English fields

But the dissolution of the monasteries and Henry’s land-grab and on-sale of huge swathes of the country had massive social and economic consequences as well. Landlords all over the country had benefitted by acquiring former Church land. They discovered that it was much more profitable for them to raise large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle on huge consolidated blocks of land than it was to continue to allow the rural peasantry to cultivate the medieval ridge and furrow fields and make use of the commons and moors to supplement their meagre livelihoods. As E. P. Cheney wrote in Social Changes in England in the Sixteenth Century:

A new conception of the ownership of land was rising by which it came to be looked upon, quite in contrast with the feudal or communal notion of the Middle Ages, as subject to the same completeness of control and use as any kind of personal property.

Professor Pollard in his England under Protector Somerset wrote that under the old view,

Land was regarded not as a source of wealth but as a source of men…  and it was more important for the lord to have men to defend him than for him to increase his wealth by extracting as much rent as he could from his tenants.



The landlords started to consolidate their various pieces of land, a process known as ‘engrossing’. They also started to ‘enclose’ these lands in a more aggressive manner; i.e. erecting hedges and fences to keep the peasants out. In earlier times the lords had wanted many peasant farmers on their land, both for the extraction of rents, to work on the lords’ ‘home farms’ and as a ‘stock’ to take with them in their squabbles and wars. They often made this explicit. In distant Cumberland in the fifteenth century, a local lord, Lancelot Threlkeld, said that he had three manors:

One at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

But now landlords could make more money turning peasant cultivated land into pasture for their sheep and so they didn’t need all their peasant ‘stock’. How to get rid of them? The strategy was twofold: First, they racked up rents to extortionate levels that both peasant farmers and even yeoman could not afford. Second, by enclosing the fields and commons with hedges and fences and by enforcing brutal penalties against any who wanted to continue to exercise their common rights.

Joseph Clayton commented in his wonderful Robert Kett and the Norfolk Rising:

The new view naturally prevailed. There was no power strong enough to withstand the landlords (always the real rulers of an agricultural nation), when, in pursuit of wealth, they got rid of the people from the land and proceeded to bring in more and more sheep.

Engrossing and enclosing land weren’t new things in England; they went back to at least the thirteenth century. But Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries and subsequent land redistribution did give the process a massive boost.

During the period, which may be roughly defined as from 1450 to 1550, enclosure meant to a large extent the actual dispossession of the tenants by their manorial lords. This took place either in the form of the violent ousting of the sitting tenant, or of a refusal on the death of one tenant to admit the son, who in earlier centuries would have been treated as his natural successor. Proofs abound. W. J. Ashley, Economic History.

The landlords’ strategy worked. All over England hundreds of thousands of poor English farmers and husbandmen were evicted from the land their ancestors had cultivated for centuries. The landlords then demolished their houses and cottages.

Lord Protector Somerset

Lord Protector Somerset

The upshot was that many of these evicted people became ‘unemployed’, a word that was used at the time. Another frequent name for them was ‘vagabonds’. Countless thousands could no longer support themselves or their families through the sweat of their own brow. They squatted where they could; they roamed the villages and towns of England looking for work or begging for charity; they migrated to the squalor of London; and, when they were desperate, they resorted to petty theft to survive.

This was all too much for the king, the nobles and the landlords. There was, they said, an ‘unemployed’ or ‘vagabond’ problem. The response was that these unemployed vagabonds needed to be punished and, if they continued to be a problem, they were to be killed. Eventually when even these draconic measures didn’t work the government of Henry’s young son King Edward VI resorted to the reintroduction of slavery in England.

Joseph Clayton summarised all this very well:

Parliament in Henry VIII’s reign brought in the lash and the gallows to solve the “unemployed problem” Punishment seemed the right thing for people, homeless and landless, for peasants dispossessed of holdings, for soldiers broken in the French Wars.

In 1531 an Act of Parliament allowed licences for begging to be granted to the impotent, and ordered a whipping for all other mendicants.  Five years later, in the year of the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Parliament, finding the unemployed still alive, decided to deal more radically with the problem. So on the first conviction of unemployment all vagrants, men, and women alike, were to be whipped; for the second offence they were to be mutilated; and on the third conviction they were to be hanged as felons. This Act of 1536 was rigidly enforced and thousands of unemployed men and women suffered the full penalty of the law. And still the “unemployed problem” remained unsolved, so that it was said that only by sterner measures and greater severity could the question be settled.

Therefore, in 1547, the first year of Edward VI., an Act was passed selling the unemployed into slavery. For a first conviction branding and two years of slavery was ordered for the unemployed vagrant; the “slave” was to be beaten and chained by his master, and for running away he was to be further branded and adjudged a “slave” for ever. Death as a felon was the penalty for a third conviction.

Branding and slavery in Tudor England

Branding and slavery in Tudor England

Let us be quite clear what was happening here. Under the 1547 Vagrancy Act introduced by the Protector of England, the Duke of Somerset, not only would the unemployed by branded with a V on their foreheads, but they would be made a slave for two years – for a first offence. The words slave and slavery were repeatedly used in the Act. If they continued to be unemployed they could be enslaved forever. Slavery recognised by the law had been reintroduced to England.

Wasn’t the Tudor period such a Golden Age?

Of course all this doesn’t make as good television as King Henry jumping in an out of the beds of his numerous wives and mistresses, so we never hear about it. Another reason for this lack of knowledge is that the 1547 ‘slavery’ Act was soon repealed. Not only were common people appalled by the reappearance of slavery in England ‘the land of the free’, but many in positions of power were too, or at least they saw it wasn’t working.

Even this measure, drastic as it was, failed to rid the country of the unemployed. Moreover, people were found in that first year of Edward VI. to dislike the enslavement of free-born men and women. Government it seemed had got rid of papal authority only to bring back slavery to England.

So in 1549 the Act of 1547 was repealed, and the (still brutal) Act of 1531 was once more the law of the land.

Robert Kett leading the  revolt

Robert Kett leading the revolt

Yet all the engrossing, enclosing and evicting went on. Protests and sometimes rebellions broke out in different parts of the country. The most famous was Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. I won’t tell this story here; the rather anodyne Wikipedia page will give you some idea. But Norfolk landowner Robert Kett would surely be on my list of Top Ten Englishmen.

At the very start of Kett’s Rebellion, a ‘Rebels’ Complaint’ was issued, probably written by Kett himself:


The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.

These abound in delights; and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasures, thirst only after gain, inflamed with the burning delights of their desires.

But ourselves, almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all our life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. Which things, though they seem miserable and base (as they are indeed most miserable), yet might be borne howsoever, if they which are drowned in the boiling seas of evil delights did not pursue the calamities and miseries of other men with too much insolent hatred. But now both we and our miserable condition is a laughing stock to these most proud and insolent men who are consumed with ease and idleness. Which thing (as it may) grieveth us so sore and inflicteth such a stain of evil report, so that nothing is more grievous for us to remember, nor more unjust to suffer.

The present condition of possessing land seemeth miserable and slavish holding it all at the pleasure of great men; not freely, but by prescription, and, as it were, at the will and pleasure of the lord. For as soon as any man offend any of these gorgeous gentlemen he is put out, deprived, and thrust from all his goods.

How long shall we suffer so great oppression to go unrevenged?

For so far are they, the gentlemen, now gone in cruelty and covetousness, that they are not content only to take all by violence away from us, and to consume in riot and effeminate delights what they get by force and villainy, but they must also suck in a manner our blood and marrow out of our veins and bones.

The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away.

The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out. Whatsoever fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth all these do they devour, consume, and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts, but they seek out new devices, and, as it were, forms of pleasures to embalm and perfume themselves, to abound in pleasant smells, to pour in sweet things to sweet things. Finally they seek from all places all things for their desire and the provocation of lust. While we in the meantime eat herbs and roots, and languish with continual labour, and yet are envied that we live, breathe, and enjoy common air!

Shall they, as they have brought hedges about common pastures, enclose with their intolerable lusts also all the commodities and pleasures of this life, which Nature, the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day, for us, as well as for them?

We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess, and pride of the nobility. We will rather take arms, and mix Heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty.

Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?

We see that things have now come to extremities, and we will prove the extremity. We will rend down the hedges, fill up ditches, and make a way for every man into the common pasture. Finally, we will lay all even with the ground, which they, no less wickedly than cruelly and covetously, have enclosed. Neither will we suffer ourselves any more to be pressed with such burdens against our wills, nor endure so great shame, since living out our days under such inconveniences we should leave the commonwealth unto our posterity mourning, and miserable, and much worse than we received it of our fathers.

Wherefore we will try all means; neither will we ever rest until we have brought things to our own liking.

We desire liberty, and an indifferent (or equal) use of all things. This will we have. Otherwise these tumults and our lives shall only be ended together.

Robert Kett under the Oak of Reformation

Robert Kett under the Oak of Reformation

As Joseph Clayton put it in 1912:

In these plain and downright phrases the Norfolk peasants flung out their banner of revolt, and called their neighbours to the fray. Nor did they call in vain. Kett moved his camp to Eaton Wood hard by and hither came crowds of poor men on l0th July, while word of the rising was spread throughout the county. For good or for evil, for victory or defeat, for loss or gain, the countryside was rising against the enclosures, and no man could foretell the issue.

Of course we can guess the ‘issue’. During Kett’s Rebellion several thousand English people were killed by an army of (mostly foreign) mercenaries sent by the young king’s ministers to crush them. Many more were hanged in revenge afterwards, including Robert Kett himself who was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle on the 7th December 1549.

Twenty years ago I bought a book called Celt and Saxon by the historian and writer Peter Berresford Ellis. I have reread it with much pleasure and benefit several times since. As a corrective to the all too usual Anglo-centric tellings of British history Beresford Ellis’s book is well worth reading, as is his other work. Yet my most recent rereading prompts me to some thoughts on the history of Britain as well a couple of issues regarding national identity.

Celt and SaxonThe full title of Berresford Ellis’s book is ‘Celt and Saxon. The Struggle for Britain AD 410 – 937’. This gives you some indication of the story he tells: How the ‘Saxons’ first arrived in post-Roman ‘Celtic’ Britain; how over the next centuries these Saxons slowly but surely extended their dominance over much of the southern part of the island of Britain – the region now called England; how the Celtic-speaking native Britons fought back;  how even in the tenth century the Celts still dreamt of throwing out the accursed Saxon and Viking invaders and sang ‘The Monarchy of Britain’ (Vnbeinyaeth Prydein) before going into battle. But ultimately how, after the Saxon king Athelstan’s victory over a coalition of Norse-Irish, Scots, Welsh (possibly) and Cumbrian warlords at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, the Celts had to accept that the Saxons and Danes could not be dislodged and how thereafter instead of calling themselves Britons they (or at least the Welsh) started to refer to themselves as Cymry, i.e. Compatriots, hence the present Welsh name for Wales, Cymru, and indeed Cumbria.

This is a story that has been told many times. But more than most Berresford Ellis’s telling does deserve credit for giving us an overview of the struggle for the whole of the island of Britain and not just a narrative on the creation of England, Scotland or Wales.

Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937

Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937

We well know that the victors of this half-millennium-long struggle were the ‘Saxons’ and the losers the ‘Celts’. And we all know that the victors write the history. So far so good. The first problem is that by wanting to sympathise and empathise with the British and Irish Celts in their travails and their oppression at the hands of the Saxons and their Danish and Norwegian Viking kin (who from a certain point he invariably calls ‘English’), Berresford Ellis presents the Saxons/English as a particularly aggressive and brutal people, interested always and only in the further expansion of their English empire. Even in the last paragraph of Celt and Saxon, while speaking of today, Berresford Ellis can still ask:

Where, then, can such aggressive Saxon drives and energies be channelled in the future? Or has that aggressive urge finally been satiated?

Yet when discussing the native British Celts he almost invariably concentrates on their flourishing culture, their language, their literature and their valour in opposing the invasion and take-over of their country. His is a story of goodies and baddies. We know which ones the ‘English’ were.

One view of Celtic Warriors

One view of Celtic Warriors

This is a perfectly valid way to tell a story of Britain during those centuries. After all for the general reader more histories of individual Anglo-Saxon kings without any longer-term context don’t add much to anyone’s understanding of our shared past. I for one do believe that historians ought to side with the losers, or I would prefer to say the oppressed, rather than with the thuggish elites. The problem with Celt and Saxon is that the Saxon and Scandinavian tribes, the ‘English’, were no more and no less aggressive and brutal than all the other tribes and emerging nationalities of the time. The British Celts were led and dominated by brutal warlords too. Like the ‘Saxons’ these elites too were constantly fighting each other, seeking to take their neighbours’ lands, glorifying in the slaughter of their enemies and taking slaves wherever they could. So did the German tribes and the Franks and Goths in Gaul.

The Celts would have happily wiped the English (Anglo-Saxons) from the face of the earth if they could have. It was just that they were never united enough for long enough to do so.

Berresford Ellis has expressed his views on culture and language forcefully both in Celt and Saxon as well as elsewhere. For him you are a ‘Celt’ if you speak a Celtic language; it has nothing to do with race or genealogical or genetic ancestry.

Celtic is a linguistic term; a Celt is one who speaks or was known to have spoken within modern historical times a Celtic language.  That is central. The definition is certainly not a racial term.

To reject the language and culture of the people is, as Thomas Davis declared, to set their history adrift, create a gulf that separates people from knowledge of their history and thousands of years of cultural and historic development.

So I suppose he’d have to concede that the same must be true of the English. If you speak English (as your native tongue?) and were brought up in an English culture then you are English. And the English it is said are a particularly aggressive and expansionist people.

This all seems very hard to square with the results of many genetic studies on the ‘Origins’ of the English and British. Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer wrote in The Origins of the British:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Britain circa 600

Britain circa 600

To repeat, only around 5.5% of the present population of England find their genetic ancestry in the Saxon advent starting in the fifth century, and even fewer in the Viking invasions. If this is approximately true, and much evidence suggests it is, then the vast bulk of the English in both pre- and post-Conquest times were actually also originally British; British ‘Celts’ if you must.

How so few Anglo-Saxons managed to make their Germanic language the sole language for the millions of Britons in what is now England has still yet to be satisfactorily explained. But that this happened is beyond dispute.

So suddenly it seems that by adopting the ‘Old’ English language these millions of British ‘Celts’ instantly became English, and what’s more by some mysterious and unexplained process they then became particularly aggressive and expansionist too.

As the great American historian Howard Zinn used to say, No! The confusion in my view comes from the choice of groups historians make and have to make. Much if not all of history is about what some people did to other people, or better said what some groups of people did to other groups of people. Berresford Ellis’s choice of groups is explicit in his title: Celts and Saxons. But linguistic and cultural groups are not the only shapers of history. In fact they are nowhere near the most important or explanatory groups. Much more important, and I would argue relevant, are positional groups. Since the appearance of the first town-based civilisations, societies all over the world have been stratified. Powerful, dominant and usually brutal elites emerged, particularly ‘kings’ and priests, and always at the point of a sword. The concern of these elites has always been the maintenance and extension of their position, power and privileges.

To restrict ourselves here to European history, these heavily armed ‘strongmen’ or warlords saw it as their right to enslave, exploit and use the vast majority of ‘their’ people in whatever way they wished. The armed elites may change but they were and are always there. They were there too, and just as much, in Celtic societies as they were in ‘Saxon’ societies. It is the maintenance and extension of the power of these armed elites that that driven almost all wars, colonisations and empires. To use Berresford Ellis’s terms, the Saxons (or the English) as a people were no more aggressive and brutal than the Celts, the Norse, the Germans or the Franks.

Most people of whatever nationality or language don’t want to fight and conquer; they want to be left alone to grow their crops, to build their houses, to sing a few songs and to raise their children. It is always the powerful elites – the kings, nobles and priests – who haven’t let them do so. English people, just like the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, have for hundreds of years been dragged from their own homes, by force or because of poverty, to fight the wars of their lords in all parts of Britain and, later, in all parts of the globe. Fights and wars which have nothing to do with them, and which, whether won or lost, have never brought them any benefit; only suffering and death.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

One final thought. The last chapter of Celt and Saxon is titled “Do ‘the British’ really exist?”. Berresford Ellis argues that the modern concepts of ‘Britain’ and Britishness are simply constructs hiding the facts of the spread of an ‘English empire’ – first in the islands of Britain and subsequently throughout the world. There is much to be said for this view. But what is rather strange is that having stopped his story in the tenth century, by when he sees the Saxons as already the ‘English’, Berresford Ellis then simply skips the next six or seven hundred years completely. For him the aggressive Saxons/English of pre-Conquest Britain are exactly the same as the expansionist English who started to carve out an overseas empire at the end of the Tudor period. What about the Norman Conquest and the following centuries when the people of England were not only conquered but subjugated, expropriated, repressed and exploited as well? A time when the new French and French-speaking masters tried to eradicate the English language and a time during which generations of English people were dragged off to fight for the power and glory of these Norman French in countless continental wars.

Not only was the Norman Conquest the single most important, and sad, event in the whole of English history, it was also ultimately a disaster for the Celts of Britain as well – be they Welsh, Scots or Irish.

Scots help take Quebec, 1759

Scots help take Quebec, 1759

The French-speaking masters were a distinct class or group for hundreds of years. It was only in the fifteenth century as the Hundred Years War ground on that some of them started to think of themselves as English. Whether English or not, it was these descendants of William the Bastard’s Normans who controlled and exploited England and Britain for a whole millennium. It was this powerful, elite and brutal group who pushed for the creation of the English/British Empire. It was they who exploited the English, Welsh, Irish and, later, the Scots, to pay for their wars and to be conscripted into their army and navy. The creation of the British (or English) Empire didn’t come about from some fictitious inherent aggressiveness of the ‘Saxon’ English, as Berresford Ellis seems to suggest.

At the start of Celt and Saxon the author makes the following dedication, ‘… with the hope that Saxon may finally learn to understand Celt and both may come to live alongside each other in mutual respect and amicability’. I hope so too.

I hope too that I’m not some sort of ‘Little Englander’. My own Lewis family were, as you might guess, Welsh. In the mid-sixteenth century my earliest documented Lewis ancestor lived in the village of Alberbury in the English county of Shropshire, right on the modern border with Powys in Wales. His name was John ap Llewellyn: John son of Llewellyn. The Welsh Christian name Llewellyn was anglicised to Lewis and became the family name. Even in the nineteenth century my Shropshire great grandmother still spoke both Welsh and English. Of course this doesn’t make me Welsh; my culture and language, as well as all my other ancestors, are English.

I agree with Peter Berresford Ellis when he says the inhabitants of the island of Britain need to find a way to live more amicably together, but when we’re considering the deep history of Britain we need, I suggest, to cast our net a little wider than ‘Celt and Saxon’. I still commend his book to you.

Almost fainting with terror she glanced back, as she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other.

From ‘The Rape of Europa’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Like the English, the French have only the haziest conception of their own history, even the history of their own language. After learning a few myths about Louis the Fourteenth and Napoleon, French schoolchildren might, if they are lucky, hear something of Charlemagne. He’ll most likely be presented as an early Frenchman who was the first king to rule over much of Western Europe. Even the European Union likes to join in with such myth-making from time to time, calling him ‘the father of Europe’ or some such tosh. This makes about as much sense as believing Europe sprang from the loins of a Phœnician girl who was abducted and raped by a bull. Charlemagne, let’s call him Karl for that was his name, was about as much a Frenchman as I am. Karl was a German, or, if you want to be more precise, Germanic. His court was in Aachen.

Titian's The Rape of Europa

Titian’s The Rape of Europa

The Franks, both Salian and Ripuarian, who gave their name to France were a group of Germanic tribes who first came into Gaul (modern France) in the early fifth century. The Frankish kings spoke a form of Old Germanic and continued to do so for centuries to come. Charlemagne, who we might do better to call by his German name Karl der Grosse (‘the Great’), lived in the second half of the eighth century and into the ninth century, and thus almost four hundred years after the Franks arrived in Gaul, never had more than a superficial grasp of Latin, nor any real understanding of the developing Romance language of his ‘French’ subjects. He remained a German, speaking one variant of Old High German until his death in 814. But tell that to a French history teacher at your peril!

Karl der Grosse - Charlemagne

Karl der Grosse – Charlemagne

After Emperor Karl’s death his empire started to fall apart as his children and grandchildren fought each other. In 842, only twenty-eight years after Charlemagne’s death, three of his grandsons were still fighting each other. After many complicated plots and switching of sides, two of them, Ludwig ‘the German’ and Karl ‘the Bald’ decided to combine to defeat their brother Lothar. In February 842 Karl and Ludwig (or Charles and Louis if you prefer) each came with his own army to the German (now French) town of Strasbourg. And here they agreed to swear allegiance to each other and to support each other against their brother Lothar.

It was a stage-managed affair. We are lucky to still have an early record of the meeting and the oaths sworn, written by the contemporary Frankish ‘historian’ Nithard, himself another of Charlemagne’s grandchildren, and included in his De dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici pii (On the Dissensions of the Sons of Louis the Pious). Nithard first gives a little background in Latin:

So, Ludwig and Karl met on the 16th day before the calends of March (i.e. 14 February) in the town that used to be called Argentaria but which is now commonly known as Strasbourg, and they swore the oaths given below, Ludwig in Romance and Karl in German. But before swearing the oaths, they made speeches in German and Romance.

The 'Oaths of Strasbourg'

The ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’

Notice that the ‘German’ Ludwig was to make his speeches and oaths in Romance, i.e. in Proto-French, whilst the ‘Frenchman’ Karl was to do so in German. Unfortunately we don’t have these speeches as they were spoken, but Nithard gives them in Latin.

‘Ludwig, being the elder, began as follows’:

Let it be known how many times Lothar has — since our father died — attempted to destroy me and this brother of mine, committing massacres in his pursuit of us. But since neither brotherhood nor Christianity nor any natural inclination, save justice, has been able to bring peace between us, we have been forced to take the matter to the judgement of almighty God, so that we may accept whatever His will is.

The result was, as you all know, that by the Grace of God we came out as victors, and that he, defeated, went back to his people where he was stronger. But then, motivated by brotherly love and compassion for Christendom, we decided not to pursue and destroy them; instead, until now, we have asked him at least to submit to justice as in the past.

But he, despite this, not content with God’s judgement, does not cease to come after me and this brother of mine with his armies. Moreover, he is devastating our people by burning, pillaging and murdering. That is why we now, driven by necessity, are having this meeting, and, since we believe that you doubt our firm faith and brotherhood, we shall swear this oath between us before all of you.

This act is not in bad faith, but simply so that, if God gives us peace thanks to your help, we may be certain that a common benefit will come of it. Should I — God forbid — break the oath which I am about to swear to my brother, I release you from my sovereignty over you and from the oath that you have all sworn to me.

Nithard added that ‘once Karl had finished off the speech with the same words in Romance, Ludwig, since he was the elder, then swore allegiance first’.

Karl/Charles the Bald and Ludwig/Louis the German read their oaths at Strasbourg.

Karl/Charles the Bald and Ludwig/Louis the German read their oaths at Strasbourg.

Maintaining the elaborate stage-management of speaking in each other’s language, Ludwig the German then took his oath in Romance. Luckily his Romance words were recorded by Nithard. This oath is generally accepted to be the earliest written example of ‘Old French’. Indeed it is also the earliest written example of any post-Roman Romance language.

Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun saluament, d’ist di in auant, in quant Deus sauir et podir me dunat, si saluarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in adiudha et in cadhuna cosa si cum om per dreit son fradra saluar dist, in o quid il mi altresi fazet. Et ab Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui meon uol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

I will give a translation in a minute. But notice two things. First, even in Romance we find the German name Karl. Second, even though one can, with a bit of close reading, see the first signs of the nascent French language here (for example sauir = savoir), it still seems more vulgar or ‘vulgate’ Latin than anything else, at least to me.

The ‘French’ king Karl/Charles the Bald then gives the same oath in German, actually in Rhenish Franconian, a form of Old High German.

In godes minna ind in thes christiānes folches ind unsēr bēdhero gehaltnissī, fon thesemo dage frammordes, sō fram sō mir got gewizci indi mahd furgibit, sō haldih thesan mīnan bruodher, sōso man mit rehtu sīnan bruodher scal, in thiu thaz er mig sō sama duo, indi mit Ludheren in nohheiniu thing ne gegango, the mīnan willon imo ce scadhen werdhēn.

Nithard's Histories

Nithard’s Histories

Now even though this might be difficult for a present-day German to understand, with a bit of effort they could. Indeed even an English speaker could get a fair amount if he/she looked at it hard enough. I commend you to try it, both before and after looking at the following English version of these ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’:

For the love of God and for Christendom and our common salvation, from this day onwards, as God will give me the wisdom and power, I shall protect this brother of mine Karl (or Ludwig), with aid or anything else, as one ought to protect one’s brother, so that he may do the same for me, and I shall never knowingly make any covenant with Lothar that would harm this brother of mine Karl (or Ludwig).

After Ludwig and Karl had made their oaths in the other’s language, it was the turn of their armies to mumble a few words. Of course it couldn’t be expected that these simple warriors would use another language; that would be like asking French soldiers today to take an oath in German! So the armies made a short oath in their own languages. First Romance:

Si Lodhuuigs sagrament quæ son fradre Karlo iurat, conseruat, et Carlus meos sendra, de suo part, non lostanit, si io returnar non l’int pois, ne io, ne neuls cui eo returnar int pois, in nulla aiudha contra Lodhuuuig nun li iu er.

Then the Germans:

Oba Karl then eid, then er sīnemo bruodher Ludhuwīge gesuor, geleistit, indi Ludhuwīg mīn hērro then er imo gesuor forbrihchit, ob ih inan es irwenden ne mag: noh ih noh thero nohhein, then ih es irwenden mag, widhar Karlo imo ce follusti ne wirdhit.

In English :

If Ludwig (Karl) keeps the oath that he has sworn to his brother Karl (Ludwig), and Karl (Ludwig), my lord, on the other hand breaks it, and if I cannot dissuade him from it — neither I nor anyone that I can dissuade from it — then I shall not help him in any way against Ludwig (Karl).

The text finishes with the information that, ‘with this completed, Ludwig left for Worms along the Rhine via Speyer; and Karl, along the Vosges via Wissembourg’.

From a linguistic point of view the ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’ is a remarkable document. As I have said, it is the first example of early French as well as the first written text in any Romance language, although it is not by any means anywhere near the first text in the various forms of Old Germanic (including Old English).

What’s in a language? Make of this what you may.

‘And oft tyne oððe twelfe, ælc æfter oþrum, scendað to bysmore þæs þegenes cwenan and hwilum his dohtor oððe nydmagan þær he on locað þe læt hine sylfne rancne and ricne and genoh godne ær þæt gewurde.’

‘God ure helpe, amen.’

At the end of the tenth century England once more started to suffer from Scandinavian Viking raids. It was to the luckless English king Æthelred that fell the unenviable task of trying to fight them off. Æthelred is known to generations of English schoolchildren as Æthelred the Unready. This name is both unfair and incorrect. In later times chroniclers called Æthelred ‘Unraed’, an Old English word which means ill-counselled or badly advised; it’s certainly nothing to do with unreadiness. For a short time at the start of the millennium the Danish king Swein gained the crown of England, but after his death Æthelred came back from his brief exile in Normandy. He, and later his son, King Edmund ‘Ironside’, continued their struggle against the Danes, only to eventually lose when Edmund died and Swein’s son Knut (‘Canute’) became king of England in 1016. I will return to some of these events at a later time. But here I’d simply like to bring to your attention a remarkable ‘sermon’ or address made in 1014 by the Bishop of York, Wulfstan, to the people of England. Its Latin title is Sermo Lupi ad anglos: The Sermon (or address) of the Wolf to the English. Despite its Latin title the rest of the address is in Old English.

Later I reproduce the full text of Wulfstan’s sermon, in both modern English and in the original Old English (or Anglo-Saxon). It is a story of the suffering of the people of England, but it is also much more.

Wulfstan (sometimes Lupus) was an English Bishop of London and Worcester and Archbishop of York.

Wulfstan of York

Wulfstan of York

‘He is thought to have begun his ecclesiastical career as a Benedictine monk. He became the Bishop of London in 996. In 1002 he was elected simultaneously to the diocese of Worcester and the archdiocese of York, holding both in plurality until 1016, when he relinquished Worcester; he remained archbishop of York until his death. It was perhaps while he was at London that he first became well known as a writer of sermons, or homilies, on the topic of Antichrist. In 1014, as archbishop, he wrote his most famous work, a homily which he titled the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, or the Sermon of the Wolf to the English.’

‘Besides sermons Wulfstan was also instrumental in drafting law codes for both kings Æthelred the Unready and Cnut the Great of England. He is considered one of the two major writers of the late Anglo-Saxon period in England. After his death in 1023, miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb, but attempts to have him declared a saint never bore fruit.’

Wulfstan's 'Sermo Lupi'

Wulfstan’s ‘Sermo Lupi’

Given the time when Wulfstan wrote the sermon at the beginning of the new Millennium, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, infused with religious Millenarianism. The end of the world was nigh, the sufferings of the people of England has been brought on them because of their own sins, but there was still a chance of redemption if they returned to a righteous life.

Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end. And therefore things in this world go ever the longer the worse, and so it must needs be that things quickly worsen, on account of people’s sinning from day to day, before the coming of Antichrist.

And indeed it will then be awful and grim widely throughout the world. Understand also well that the Devil has now led this nation astray for very many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men, though they spoke well.

And too many crimes reigned in the land, and there were never many of men who deliberated about the remedy as eagerly as one should, but daily they piled one evil upon another, and committed injustices and many violations of law all too widely throughout this entire land.

The myth of King 'Canute'

The myth of King ‘Canute’

The people of England, says Wulfstan, have ‘endured many injuries and insults’, but they have ‘earned the misery that is upon us’. He then goes on at great length explaining all the sins of the English and how they have not heeded the word of God and have worshipped false gods. He continues:

And sanctuaries are too widely violated, and God’s houses are entirely stripped of all dues and are stripped within of everything fitting.

And widows are widely forced to marry in unjust ways and too many are impoverished and fully humiliated; and poor men are sorely betrayed and cruelly defrauded, and sold widely out of this land into the power of foreigners, though innocent; and infants are enslaved by means of cruel injustices, on account of petty theft everywhere in this nation.

And the rights of freemen are taken away and the rights of slaves are restricted and charitable obligations are curtailed. Free men may not keep their independence, nor go where they wish, nor deal with their property just as they desire; nor may slaves have that property which, on their own time, they have obtained by means of difficult labour, or that which good men, in Gods favour, have granted them, and given to them in charity for the love of God. But every man decreases or withholds every charitable obligation that should by rights be paid eagerly in God’s favour, for injustice is too widely common among men and lawlessness is too widely dear to them.

And in short, the laws of God are hated and his teaching despised; therefore we all are frequently disgraced through God’s anger, let him know it who is able. And that loss will become universal, although one may not think so, to all these people, unless God protects us.

Vikings arrive

Vikings arrive with mythic wimgs

It is all this that has brought the wrath of God (or the Danes) upon the people of England:

… it is clear and well seen in all of us that we have previously more often transgressed than we have amended, and therefore much is greatly assailing this nation.

It is here that Wulfstan turns his attention to what has been happening in England:

Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again.

And stealing and slaying, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, malice and hate, and the robbery by robbers have injured us very terribly.

And excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops; therefore in this land there have been, as it may appear, many years now of injustices and unstable loyalties everywhere among men.

Now very often a kinsman does not spare his kinsman any more than the foreigner, nor the father his children, nor sometimes the child his own father, nor one brother the other.

Neither has any of us ordered his life just as he should, neither the ecclesiastic according to the rule nor the layman according to the law. But we have transformed desire into laws for us entirely too often, and have kept neither precepts nor laws of God or men just as we should. Neither has anyone had loyal intentions with respect to others as justly as he should, but almost everyone has deceived and injured another by words and deeds; and indeed almost everyone unjustly stabs the other from behind with shameful assaults and with wrongful accusations — let him do more, if he may.

More follows about disloyalty and betrayal, alluding at least in part to a supposed, but certainly much vilified, English traitor, the Mercian ealdorman Eadric Streona (the Grabber). Here we start to hear about some of the things the return of the Danes has brought to England: slavery and the sale of women:

And too many Christian men have been sold out of this land, now for a long time, and all this is entirely hateful to God, let him believe it who will. Also we know well where this crime has occurred, and it is shameful to speak of that which has happened too widely.

And it is terrible to know what too many do often, those who for a while carry out a miserable deed, who contribute together and buy a woman as a joint purchase between them and practice foul sin with that one woman, one after another, and each after the other like dogs that care not about filth, and then for a price they sell a creature of God

All this Wulfstan had seen himself, certainly during his time as Bishop of London and probably later as well. But he and the English had witnessed more:

And pirates are so strong through the consent of God, that often in battle one drives away ten, and two often drive away twenty, sometimes fewer and sometimes more, entirely on account of our sins.

And often ten or twelve, each after the other, insult the thane’s woman disgracefully, and sometimes his daughter or close kinswomen, while he looks on, he that considered himself brave and strong and good enough before that happened.

Stereotypical Viking Rape and Pillage

Stereotypical Viking Rape and Pillage

Let us be clear what Wulfstan is saying here when he says ‘and often ten or twelve, each after the other, insult the thane’s woman disgracefully’

And oft tyne oððe twelfe, ælc æfter oþrum, scendað to bysmore þæs þegenes cwenan and hwilum his dohtor oððe nydmagan þær he on locað þe læt hine sylfne rancne and ricne and genoh godne ær þæt gewurde.

English women are being gang raped as their helpless fathers and brothers are forced to look on.

As if this wasn’t enough, like all priestly elites of the time, Wulfstan is as much concerned with the world being turned upside down as he is about slavery, rape and death. The established order of things has changed; the lower orders have forgotten their place.

And often a slave binds very fast the thane who previously was his lord and makes him into a slave through God’s anger. Alas the misery and alas the public shame that the English now have, entirely through God’s anger.

Often two sailors, or three for a while, drive the droves of Christian men from sea to sea — out through this nation, huddled together, as a public shame for us all, if we could seriously and properly know any shame. But all the insult that we often suffer, we repay by honouring those who insult us. We pay them continually and they humiliate us daily; they ravage and they burn, plunder and rob and carry to the ship; and lo! what else is there in all these happenings except God’s anger clear and evident over this nation?

Thanes are made slaves, herded onto ships to be taken to Scandinavia or to the slave markets of Europe, there possibly to be sold to the Muslims of North Africa. And while suffering all this, the English still have to pay the Danes vast amounts of money, ‘Danegeld’. ‘We pay them continually and they humiliate us daily,’

King Edmund Ironside meets Cnut ('Canute')

King Edmund Ironside meets Cnut (‘Canute’)

More follows on the sins of the people of England that have brought all this suffering upon them.

Here in the country, as it may appear, too many are sorely wounded by the stains of sin. Here there are, as we said before, manslayers and murderers of their kinsmen, and murderers of priests and persecutors of monasteries, and traitors and notorious apostates, and here there are perjurers and murderers, and here there are injurers of men in holy orders and adulterers, and people greatly corrupted through incest and through various fornications, and here there are harlots and infanticides and many foul adulterous fornicators, and here there are witches and sorceresses, and here there are robbers and plunderers and pilferers and thieves, and injurers of the people and pledge-breakers and treaty-breakers, and, in short, a countless number of all crimes and misdeeds.

Gildas's Ruin and Destruction of Britain

Gildas’s Ruin and Destruction of Britain

Here Wulfstan reminds the English people of the similar sins and sufferings of the native Britons when the Anglo-Saxons had come to Britain in the fifth century. He refers to the writings of the sixth-century British monk Gildas who gave a similar sermon called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’. In Chapter 24 Gildas wrote:

For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean.

Wulfstan himself writes:

There was a historian in the time of the Britons, called Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how with their sins they infuriated God so excessively that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land, and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely.

And that came about, just as he said, through breach of rule by the clergy and through breach of laws by laymen, through robbery by the strong and through coveting of ill-gotten gains, violations of law by the people and through unjust judgments, through the sloth of the bishops and folly, and through the wicked cowardice of messengers of God, who swallowed the truths entirely too often and they mumbled through their jaws where they should have cried out; also through foul pride of the people and through gluttony and manifold sins they destroyed their land and they themselves perished.

But it all lost? Is there no hope? Here Wulfstan follows Gildas in believed that hope lies in religious and moral reform:

But let us do as is necessary for us, take warning from such; and it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of anywhere among the Britons; and therefore there is a great need for us to take thought for ourselves, and to intercede eagerly with God himself.

And let us do as is necessary for us, turn towards the right and to some extent abandon wrong-doing, and eagerly atone for what we previously transgressed; and let us love God and follow God’s laws, and carry out well that which we promised when we received baptism, or those who were our sponsors at baptism; and let us order words and deeds justly, and cleanse our thoughts with zeal, and keep oaths and pledges carefully, and have some loyalty between us without evil practice.

And let us often reflect upon the great Judgment to which we all shall go, and let us save ourselves from the welling fire of hell torment, and gain for ourselves the glories and joys that God has prepared for those who work his will in the world. God help us. Amen.

Below I give Wulfstan’s full sermon in modern and Old English. I have added some rather arbitrary paragraph breaks to make it slightly easier to follow.


The sermon of the Wolf to the English, when the Danes were greatly persecuting them, which was in the year 1014 after the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end. And therefore things in this world go ever the longer the worse, and so it must needs be that things quickly worsen, on account of people’s sinning from day to day, before the coming of Antichrist.

And indeed it will then be awful and grim widely throughout the world. Understand also well that the Devil has now led this nation astray for very many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men, though they spoke well.

And too many crimes reigned in the land, and there were never many of men who deliberated about the remedy as eagerly as one should, but daily they piled one evil upon another, and committed injustices and many violations of law all too widely throughout this entire land.

And we have also therefore endured many injuries and insults, and if we shall experience any remedy then we must deserve better of God than we have previously done. For with great deserts we have earned the misery that is upon us, and with truly great deserts we must obtain the remedy from God, if henceforth things are to improve. Lo, we know full well that a great breach of law shall necessitate a great remedy, and a great fire shall necessitate much water, if that fire is to be quenched.

And it is also a great necessity for each of men that he henceforth eagerly heed the law of God better than he has done, and justly pay God’s dues. In heathen lands one does not dare withhold little nor much of that which is appointed to the worship of false gods; and we withhold everywhere God’s dues all too often.

And in heathen lands one dares not curtail, within or without the temple, anything brought to the false gods and entrusted as an offering.

And we have entirely stripped God’s houses of everything fitting, within and without, and God’s servants are everywhere deprived of honour and protection.

And some men say that no man dare abuse the servants of false gods in any way among heathen people, just as is now done widely to the servants of God, where Christians ought to observe the law of God and protect the servants of God.

But what I say is true: there is need for that remedy because God’s dues have diminished too long in this land in every district, and laws of the people have deteriorated entirely too greatly, since Edgar died.

And sanctuaries are too widely violated, and God’s houses are entirely stripped of all dues and are stripped within of everything fitting. And widows are widely forced to marry in unjust ways and too many are impoverished and fully humiliated; and poor men are sorely betrayed and cruelly defrauded, and sold widely out of this land into the power of foreigners, though innocent; and infants are enslaved by means of cruel injustices, on account of petty theft everywhere in this nation.

And the rights of freemen are taken away and the rights of slaves are restricted and charitable obligations are curtailed. Free men may not keep their independence, nor go where they wish, nor deal with their property just as they desire; nor may slaves have that property which, on their own time, they have obtained by means of difficult labour, or that which good men, in Gods favour, have granted them, and given to them in charity for the love of God. But every man decreases or withholds every charitable obligation that should by rights be paid eagerly in Gods favour, for injustice is too widely common among men and lawlessness is too widely dear to them.

And in short, the laws of God are hated and his teaching despised; therefore we all are frequently disgraced through God’s anger, let him know it who is able. And that loss will become universal, although one may not think so, to all these people, unless God protects us.

Therefore it is clear and well seen in all of us that we have previously more often transgressed than we have amended, and therefore much is greatly assailing this nation.

Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again.

And stealing and slaying, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, malice and hate, and the robbery by robbers have injured us very terribly. And excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops; therefore in this land there have been, as it may appear, many years now of injustices and unstable loyalties everywhere among men.

Now very often a kinsman does not spare his kinsman any more than the foreigner, nor the father his children, nor sometimes the child his own father, nor one brother the other. Neither has any of us ordered his life just as he should, neither the ecclesiastic according to the rule nor the layman according to the law. But we have transformed desire into laws for us entirely too often, and have kept neither precepts nor laws of God or men just as we should.

Neither has anyone had loyal intentions with respect to others as justly as he should, but almost everyone has deceived and injured another by words and deeds; and indeed almost everyone unjustly stabs the other from behind with shameful assaults and with wrongful accusations — let him do more, if he may.

For there are in this nation great disloyalties for matters of the Church and the state, and also there are in the land many who betray their lords in various ways. And the greatest of all betrayals of a lord in the world is that a man betrays the soul of his lord. And it is the greatest of all betrayals of a lord in the world, that a man betray his lord’s soul. And a very great betrayal of a lord it is also in the world, that a man betray his lord to death, or drive him living from the land, and both have come to pass in this land: Edward was betrayed, and then killed, and after that burned; and Æthelred was driven out of his land.

And too many sponsors and godchildren have been killed widely throughout this nation, in addition to entirely too many other innocent people who have been destroyed entirely too widely.

And entirely too many holy religious foundations have deteriorated because some men have previously been placed in them who ought not to have been, if one wished to show respect to God’s sanctuary.

And too many Christian men have been sold out of this land, now for a long time, and all this is entirely hateful to God, let him believe it who will. Also we know well where this crime has occurred, and it is shameful to speak of that which has happened too widely.

And it is terrible to know what too many do often, those who for a while carry out a miserable deed, who contribute together and buy a woman as a joint purchase between them and practice foul sin with that one woman, one after another, and each after the other like dogs that care not about filth, and then for a price they sell a creature of God — His own purchase that He bought at a great cost — into the power of enemies.

Also we know well where the crime has occurred such that the father has sold his son for a price, and the son his mother, and one brother has sold the other into the power of foreigners, and out of this nation. All of those are great and terrible deeds, let him understand it who will. And yet what is injuring this nation is still greater and manifold: many are forsworn and greatly perjured and more vows are broken time and again, and it is clear to this people that God’s anger violently oppresses us, let him know it who can.

And lo! How may greater shame befall men through the anger of God than often does us for our own sins? Although it happens that a slave escape from a lord and, leaving Christendom becomes a Viking, and after that it happens again that a hostile encounter takes place between thane and slave, if the slave kills the thane, he lies without wergild paid to any of his kinsmen; but if the thane kills the slave that he had previously owned, he must pay the price of a thane.

Full shameful laws and disgraceful tributes are common among us, through God’s anger, let him understand it who is able. And many misfortunes befall this nation time and again. Things have not prospered now for a long time neither at home nor abroad, but there has been destruction and hate in every district time and again, and the English have been entirely defeated for a long time now, and very truly disheartened through the anger of God.

And pirates are so strong through the consent of God, that often in battle one drives away ten, and two often drive away twenty, sometimes fewer and sometimes more, entirely on account of our sins.

And often ten or twelve, each after the other, insult the thane’s woman disgracefully, and sometimes his daughter or close kinswomen, while he looks on, he that considered himself brave and strong and good enough before that happened. And often a slave binds very fast the thane who previously was his lord and makes him into a slave through God’s anger.

Alas the misery and alas the public shame that the English now have, entirely through God’s anger. Often two sailors, or three for a while, drive the droves of Christian men from sea to sea — out through this nation, huddled together, as a public shame for us all, if we could seriously and properly know any shame. But all the insult that we often suffer, we repay by honouring those who insult us. We pay them continually and they humiliate us daily; they ravage and they burn, plunder and rob and carry to the ship; and lo! what else is there in all these happenings except Gods anger clear and evident over this nation?

It is no wonder that there is mishap among us: because we know full well that now for many years men have too often not cared what they did by word or deed; but this nation, as it may appear, has become very corrupt through manifold sins and through many misdeeds: through murder and through evil deeds, through avarice and through greed, through stealing and through robbery, through man-selling and through heathen vices, through betrayals and through frauds, through breaches of law and through deceit, through attacks on kinsmen and through manslaughter, through injury of men in holy orders and through adultery, through incest and through various fornications.

And also, far and wide, as we said before, more than should be are lost and perjured through the breaking of oaths and through violations of pledges, and through various lies; and non-observances of church feasts and fasts widely occur time and again. And also there are here in the land Gods adversaries, degenerate apostates, and hostile persecutors of the Church and entirely too many grim tyrants, and widespread despisers of divine laws and Christian virtues, and foolish deriders everywhere in the nation, most often of those things that the messengers of God command, and especially those things that always belong to Gods law by right.

And therefore things have now come far and wide to that full evil way that men are more ashamed now of good deeds than of misdeeds; because too often good deeds are abused with derision and the Godfearing are blamed entirely too much, and especially are men reproached and all too often greeted with contempt who love right and have fear of God to any extent. And because men do that, entirely abusing all that they should praise and hating too much all that they ought to love, therefore they bring entirely too many to evil intentions and to misdeeds, so that they are never ashamed though they sin greatly and commit wrongs even against God himself. But on account of idle attacks they are ashamed to repent for their misdeeds, just as the books teach, like those foolish men who on account of their pride will not protect themselves from injury before they might no longer do so, although they all wish for it.

Here in the country, as it may appear, too many are sorely wounded by the stains of sin. Here there are, as we said before, manslayers and murderers of their kinsmen, and murderers of priests and persecutors of monasteries, and traitors and notorious apostates, and here there are perjurers and murderers, and here there are injurers of men in holy orders and adulterers, and people greatly corrupted through incest and through various fornications, and here there are harlots and infanticides and many foul adulterous fornicators, and here there are witches and sorceresses, and here there are robbers and plunderers and pilferers and thieves, and injurers of the people and pledge-breakers and treaty-breakers, and, in short, a countless number of all crimes and misdeeds. And we are not at all ashamed of it, but we are greatly ashamed to begin the remedy just as the books teach, and that is evident in this wretched and corrupt nation.

Alas, many a great kinsman can easily call to mind much in addition which one man could not hastily investigate, how wretchedly things have fared now all the time now widely throughout this nation. And indeed let each one examine himself well, and not delay this all too long. But lo, in the name of God, let us do as is needful for us, protect ourselves as earnestly as we may, lest we all perish together.

There was a historian in the time of the Britons, called Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how with their sins they infuriated God so excessively that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land, and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely. And that came about, just as he said, through breach of rule by the clergy and through breach of laws by laymen, through robbery by the strong and through coveting of ill-gotten gains, violations of law by the people and through unjust judgments, through the sloth of the bishops and folly, and through the wicked cowardice of messengers of God, who swallowed the truths entirely too often and they mumbled through their jaws where they should have cried out; also through foul pride of the people and through gluttony and manifold sins they destroyed their land and they themselves perished.

But let us do as is necessary for us, take warning from such; and it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of anywhere among the Britons; and therefore there is a great need for us to take thought for ourselves, and to intercede eagerly with God himself. And let us do as is necessary for us, turn towards the right and to some extent abandon wrong-doing, and eagerly atone for what we previously transgressed; and let us love God and follow God’s laws, and carry out well that which we promised when we received baptism, or those who were our sponsors at baptism; and let us order words and deeds justly, and cleanse our thoughts with zeal, and keep oaths and pledges carefully, and have some loyalty between us without evil practice.

And let us often reflect upon the great Judgment to which we all shall go, and let us save ourselves from the welling fire of hell torment, and gain for ourselves the glories and joys that God has prepared for those who work his will in the world. God help us. Amen.


Sermo Lupi ad anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos,

quod fuit anno millesimo .xiiii. ab incarnatione

Domine Nostri Iesu Cristi

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse; and swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær Antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde.

Understandað eac georne þæt deofol þas þeode nu fela geara dwelode to swyþe, and þæt lytle getreowþa wæran mid mannum, þeah hy wel spæcan, and unrihta to fela ricsode on lande.

And næs a fela manna þe smeade ymbe þa bote swa georne swa man scolde, ac dæghwamlice man ihte yfel æfter oðrum and unriht rærde and unlaga manege ealles to wide gynd ealle þas þeode.

And we eac forþam habbað fela byrsta and bysmara gebiden, and gif we ænige bote gebidan scylan, þonne mote we þæs to Gode earnian bet þonne we ær þysan dydan.

Forþam mid miclan earnungan we geearnedan þa yrmða þe us onsittað, and mid swyþe micelan earnungan we þa bote motan æt Gode geræcan gif hit sceal heonanforð godiende weorðan.

La hwæt, we witan ful georne þæt to miclan bryce sceal micel bot nyde, and to miclan bryne wæter unlytel, gif man þæt fyr sceal to ahte acwencan.

And micel is nydþearf manna gehwilcum þæt he Godes lage gyme heonanforð georne and Godes gerihta mid rihte gelæste.

On hæþenum þeodum ne dear man forhealdan lytel ne micel þæs þe gelagod is to gedwolgoda weorðunge, and we forhealdað æghwær Godes gerihta ealles to gelome.

And ne dear man gewanian on hæþenum þeodum inne ne ute ænig þæra þinga þe gedwolgodan broht bið and to lacum betæht bið, and we habbað Godes hus inne and ute clæne berypte.

And Godes þeowas syndan mæþe and munde gewelhwær bedælde; and gedwolgoda þenan ne dear man misbeodan on ænige wisan mid hæþenum leodum, swa swa man Godes þeowum nu deð to wide þær Cristene scoldan Godes lage healdan and Godes þeowas griðian.

Ac soð is þæt ic secge, þearf is þære bote, forþam Godes gerihta wanedan to lange innan þysse þeode on æghwylcan ende, and folclaga wyrsedan ealles to swyþe, and halignessa syndan to griðlease wide, and Godes hus syndan to clæne berypte ealdra gerihta and innan bestrypte ælcra gerisena, and wydewan syndan fornydde on unriht to ceorle, and to mænege foryrmde and gehynede swyþe, and earme men syndan sare beswicene and hreowlice besyrwde and ut of þysan earde wide gesealde, swyþe unforworhte, fremdum to gewealde, and cradolcild geþeowede þurh wælhreowe unlaga for lytelre þyfþe wide gynd þas þeode, and freoriht fornumene and þrælriht genyrwde and ælmesriht gewanode.

And, hrædest is to cweþenne, Godes laga laðe and lara forsawene.

And þæs we habbað ealle þurh Godes yrre bysmor gelome, gecnawe se ðe cunne; and se byrst wyrð gemæne, þeh man swa ne wene, eallre þysse þeode, butan God beorge.

Forþam hit is on us eallum swutol and gesene þæt we ær þysan oftor bræcan þonne we bettan, and þy is þysse þeode fela onsæge.

Ne dohte hit nu lange inne ne ute, ac wæs here and hunger, bryne and blodgyte, on gewelhwylcan ende oft and gelome.

And us stalu and cwalu, stric and steorfa, orfcwealm and uncoþu, hol and hete and rypera reaflac derede swyþe þearle, and us ungylda swyþe gedrehtan, and us unwedera foroft weoldan unwæstma.

Forþam on þysan earde wæs, swa hit þincan mæg, nu fela geara unriht fela and tealte getrywða æghwær mid mannum.

Ne bearh nu foroft gesib gesibban þe ma þe fremdan, ne fæder his bearne, ne hwilum bearn his agenum fæder, ne broþor oþrum; ne ure ænig his lif ne fadode swa swa he scolde, ne gehadode regollice, ne læwede lahlice, ac worhtan lust us to lage ealles to gelome, and naþor ne heoldan ne lare ne lage Godes ne manna swa swa we scoldan.

Ne ænig wið oþerne getrywlice þohte swa rihte swa he scolde, ac mæst ælc swicode and oþrum derede wordes and dæde, and huru unrihtlice mæst ælc oþerne æftan heaweþ sceandlican onscytan, do mare gif he mæge.

Forþam her syn on lande ungetrywþa micle for Gode and for worolde, and eac her syn on earde on mistlice wisan hlafordswican manege.

And ealra mæst hlafordswice se bið on worolde þæt man his hlafordes saule beswice; and ful micel hlafordswice eac bið on worolde þæt man his hlaford of life forræde oððon of lande lifiendne drife; and ægþer is geworden on þysan earde.

Eadweard man forrædde and syððan acwealde and æfter þam forbærnde.

And godsibbas and godbearn to fela man forspilde wide gynd þas þeode toeacan oðran ealles to manegan þe man unscyldgige forfor ealles to wide.

And ealles to manege halige stowa wide forwurdan þurh þæt þe man sume men ær þam gelogode swa man na ne scolde, gif man on Godes griðe mæþe witan wolde; and Cristenes folces to fela man gesealde ut of þysan earde nu ealle hwile.

And eal þæt is Gode lað, gelyfe se þe wille.

And scandlic is to specenne þæt geworden is to wide and egeslic is to witanne þæt oft doð to manege þe dreogað þa yrmþe, þæt sceotað togædere and ane cwenan gemænum ceape bicgað gemæne, and wið þa ane fylþe adreogað, an after anum and ælc æfter oðrum, hundum gelicost þe for fylþe ne scrifað, and syððan wið weorðe syllað of lande feondum to gewealde Godes gesceafte and his agenne ceap þe he deore gebohte.

Eac we witan georne hwær seo yrmð gewearð þæt fæder gesealde bearn wið weorþe and bearn his modor, and broþor sealde oþerne fremdum to gewealde; and eal þæt syndan micle and egeslice dæda, understande se þe wille.

And git hit is mare and eac mænigfealdre þæt dereð þysse þeode.

Mænige synd forsworene and swyþe forlogene, and wed synd tobrocene oft and gelome, and þæt is gesyne on þysse þeode þæt us Godes yrre hetelice onsit, gecnawe se þe cunne.

And la, hu mæg mare scamu þurh Godes yrre mannum gelimpan þonne us deð gelome for agenum gewyrhtum?

Ðeah þræla hwylc hlaforde ætleape and of Cristendome to wicinge weorþe, and hit æfter þam eft geweorþe þæt wæpengewrixl weorðe gemæne þegene and þræle, gif þræl þæne þegen fullice afylle, licge ægylde ealre his mægðe, and gif se þegen þæne þræl þe he ær ahte fullice afylle, gylde þegengylde.

Ful earhlice laga and scandlice nydgyld þurh Godes yrre us syn gemæne, understande se þe cunne. And fela ungelimpa gelimpð þysse þeode oft and gelome.

Ne dohte hit nu lange inne ne ute, ac wæs here and hete on gewelhwilcan ende oft and gelome, and Engle nu lange eal sigelease and to swyþe geyrgde þurh Godes yrre, and flotmen swa strange þurh Godes þafunge þæt oft on gefeohte an feseð tyne and hwilum læs, hwilum ma, eal for urum synnum.

And oft tyne oððe twelfe, ælc æfter oþrum, scendað to bysmore þæs þegenes cwenan and hwilum his dohtor oððe nydmagan þær he on locað þe læt hine sylfne rancne and ricne and genoh godne ær þæt gewurde.

And oft þræl þæne þegen þe ær wæs his hlaford cnyt swyþe fæste and wyrcð him to þræle þurh Godes yrre.

Wala þære yrmðe and wala þære woroldscame þe nu habbað Engle eal þurh Godes yrre.

Oft twegen sæmen oððe þry hwilum drifað þa drafe Cristenra manna fram sæ to sæ ut þurh þas þeode gewelede togædere, us eallum to woroldscame, gif we on eornost ænige cuþon ariht understandan.

Ac ealne þæne bysmor þe we oft þoliað we gyldað mid weorðscipe þam þe us scendað.

We him gyldað singallice, and hy us hynað dæghwamlice.

Hy hergiað and hy bærnað, rypaþ and reafiað and to scipe lædað; and la, hwæt is ænig oðer on eallum þam gelimpum butan Godes yrre ofer þas þeode, swutol and gesæne?

Nis eac nan wundor þeah us mislimpe, forþam we witan ful georne þæt nu fela geara men na ne rohtan foroft hwæt hy worhtan wordes oððe dæde, ac wearð þes þeodscipe, swa hit þincan mæg, swyþe forsyngod þurh mænigfealde synna and þurh fela misdæda: þurh morðdæda and þurh mandæda, þurh gitsunga and þurh gifernessa, þurh stala and þurh strudunga, þurh mannsylena and þurh hæþene unsida, þurh swicdomas and þurh searacræftas, þurh lahbrycas and þurh æswicas, þurh mægræsas and þurh manslyhtas, þurh hadbrycas and þurh æwbrycas, þurh siblegeru and þurh mistlice forligru.

And eac syndan wide, swa we ær cwædan, þurh aðbricas and þurh wedbrycas and þurh mistlice leasunga forloren and forlogen ma þonne scolde, and freolsbricas and fæstenbrycas wide geworhte oft and gelome.

And eac her syn on earde apostatan abroþene and cyrichatan hetole and leodhatan grimme ealles to manege, and oferhogan wide godcundra rihtlaga and Cristenra þeawa, and hocorwyrde dysige æghwær on þeode oftost on þa þing þe Godes bodan beodaþ and swyþost on þa þing þe æfre to Godes lage gebyriað mid rihte.

And þy is nu geworden wide and side to ful yfelan gewunan, þæt menn swyþor scamað nu for goddædan þonne for misdædan; forþam to oft man mid hocere goddæda hyrweð and godfyrhte lehtreð ealles to swyþe, and swyþost man tæleð and mid olle gegreteð ealles to gelome þa þe riht lufiað and Godes ege habbað be ænigum dæle.

And þurh þæt þe man swa deð þæt man eal hyrweð þæt man scolde heregian and to forð laðet þæt man scolde lufian, þurh þæt man gebringeð ealles to manege on yfelan geþance and on undæde, swa þæt hy ne scamað na þeah hy syngian swyðe and wið God sylfne forwyrcan hy mid ealle, ac for idelan onscytan hy scamað þæt hy betan heora misdæda, swa swa bec tæcan, gelice þam dwæsan þe for heora prytan lewe nellað beorgan ær hy na ne magan, þeah hy eal willan.

Her syndan þurh synleawa, swa hit þincan mæg, sare gelewede to manege on earde.

Her syndan mannslagan and mægslagan and mæsserbanan and mynsterhatan; and her syndan mansworan and morþorwyrhtan; and her syndan myltestran and bearnmyrðran and fule forlegene horingas manege; and her syndan wiccan and wælcyrian.

And her syndan ryperas and reaferas and woroldstruderas and, hrædest is to cweþenne, mana and misdæda ungerim ealra.

And þæs us ne scamað na, ac þæs us scamað swyþe þæt we bote aginnan swa swa bec tæcan, and þæt is gesyne on þysse earman forsyngodon þeode.

Eala, micel magan manege gyt hertoeacan eaþe beþencan þæs þe an man ne mehte on hrædinge asmeagan, hu earmlice hit gefaren is nu ealle hwile wide gynd þas þeode.

And smeage huru georne gehwa hine sylfne and þæs na ne latige ealles to lange.

Ac la, on Godes naman utan don swa us neod is, beorgan us sylfum swa we geornost magan þe læs we ætgædere ealle forweorðan.

An þeodwita wæs on Brytta tidum Gildas hatte.

Se awrat be heora misdædum hu hy mid heora synnum swa oferlice swyþe God gegræmedan þæt he let æt nyhstan Engla here heora eard gewinnan and Brytta dugeþe fordon mid ealle.

And þæt wæs geworden þæs þe he sæde, þurh ricra reaflac and þurh gitsunge wohgestreona, ðurh leode unlaga and þurh wohdomas, ðurh biscopa asolcennesse and þurh lyðre yrhðe Godes bydela þe soþes geswugedan ealles to gelome and clumedan mid ceaflum þær hy scoldan clypian.

Þurh fulne eac folces gælsan and þurh oferfylla and mænigfealde synna heora eard hy forworhtan and selfe hy forwurdan.

Ac utan don swa us þearf is, warnian us be swilcan. And soþ is þæt ic secge, wyrsan dæda we witan mid Englum þonne we mid Bryttan ahwar gehyrdan.

And þy us is þearf micel þæt we us beþencan and wið God sylfne þingian georne.

And utan don swa us þearf is, gebugan to rihte and be suman dæle unriht forlætan and betan swyþe georne þæt we ær bræcan.

And utan God lufian and Godes lagum fylgean, and gelæstan swyþe georne þæt þæt we behetan þa we fulluht underfengan, oððon þa þe æt fulluhte ure forespecan wæran.

And utan word and weorc rihtlice fadian and ure ingeþanc clænsian georne and að and wed wærlice healdan and sume getrywða habban us betweonan butan uncræftan.

And utan gelome understandan þone miclan dom þe we ealle to sculon, and beorgan us georne wið þone weallendan bryne hellewites, and geearnian us þa mærða and þa myrhða þe God hæfð gegearwod þam þe his willan on worolde gewyrcað.

God ure helpe, amen.